Author Keith Gessen brilliantly captures the daily rhythms, allures and challenges of Moscow life in 2008-2009. It’s as personable a book as it is political. He will appear Aug. 8 at the Elliott Bay Book Co.
In a recent New York Times editorial, author Keith Gessen — who was born in Moscow in 1975 and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 6 — confessed to feeling confused about the way the land of his birth has figured in the headlines lately.
“Having lived in Russia, I know in my bones how complicated a place it is,” he wrote. “Living in Russia is not a nonstop exercise in getting arrested, tortured, shot. People go about their lives. They buy groceries, look at their phones, go on dates, get married. They go to work in the morning, look for parking, try to get to the gym. They tell jokes.”
Gessen’s second novel, “A Terrible Country,” brilliantly captures the daily rhythms, allures and challenges of Moscow life in 2008-2009. It’s as personable a book as it is political. Its 33-year-old narrator, who shares some of Gessen’s history (born in Moscow in 1975, moved to the U.S. at age 6) is sensitive, alert, but not always clued in. “I wasn’t really an idiot,” he says. “But neither was I not an idiot.” Through his eyes we get glimpses of the authoritarian undertow of Putin’s Russia while always staying grounded in the grind of ordinary Muscovite existence.
Aspiring New York academic Andrei Kaplan is jobless and at loose ends when he gets a call from his older brother Dima, a Moscow-based entrepreneur, saying that he needs Andrei to take care of their grandmother while Dima goes to London. Their grandmother is nearly 90 and “a little confused.”
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Dima’s undisclosed reasons for hastily ditching Moscow sound shady. Nevertheless, Andrei takes up his offer. His grandmother is happy to have his company, although it takes her a while to figure out who he is (“I can’t remember … How did we come to know you?”). He ekes out a living by teaching online courses in Russian literature. He’s lonely, feels like a failure and isn’t sure he’s qualified to be caring for a frail old lady in the middling stages of dementia. (Gessen’s portrayal of her islands of lucidity — the way she consistently beats her grandson at anagrams, for instance — and the areas where the whole scaffolding of her mind is dissolving is all too believable.)
Gradually, Andrei ventures out into the city. He finds an amateur hockey team to play with and joins a discussion group of young people pushing for a return to some humane form of socialism in a society that’s been hijacked by a rabid brand of capitalism. He helps his grandmother with her shopping, her banking and her visits to her one remaining friend who hasn’t died.
That’s it, in terms of plot. The poignant glory of the novel is in its details.
Andrei is a fish out of water, but he’s not entirely an innocent. Only a lack of funds prevents him from developing a prostitute habit. His Facebook visits trigger unseemly spasms of envy of his former fellow graduate students’ flourishing careers. His patience with his grandmother grows frayed at times.
Gessen immerses you so intimately in the fabric of Andrei’s life with her that when History with a capital “H” comes knocking at the door (“Meanwhile, back home, the American financial system collapsed”), it feels like a wild-card intrusion. Dima’s growing impatience with Andrei keeps things off balance, too. Dima, as Andrei sees it, is “devoted to maximizing profit and proving he was right.” It’s a measure of Gessen’s subtlety and empathy as a writer that the tight bond between the brothers never comes into question, despite their chasm-wide differences.
Best of all is Andrei’s growing sense of Russia as a country where everyone, at one point or another, has been on the wrong side of history. While a part of Andrei remains indissolubly American, there’s enough Russian in him to make him feel implicated in everything he sees. And his unwitting complicity in certain events in the last lap of the narrative make it clear that he’s no better at navigating the currents of political oppression than anyone else. To be naive, it seems, is to be guilty.
“A Terrible Country” is wily, seductive and deeply affecting. Its hybrid narrator — half insider, half outsider — sheds light on a society that, more than ever now, we need to understand better. It’s a great book with a great heart — and a whole heap of rueful regret — at the core of it.
“A Terrible Country” by Keith Gessen, Viking, 338 pp., $26
Keith Gessen will discuss “A Terrible Country” with Paul Constant at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; elliottbaybook.com