Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Man From St. Petersburg - Ken Follett

Spur of the moment buy from a thrift shop. It's the summer of 1914, and the Czar has sent one of his nephews, also an Admiral, to England to negotiate a treaty with the British. The British want Russia onboard as an ally against Germany, the Russians want what they always want: a warm water port. The British enlist one Lord Stephen Walden to handle the negotiations, since he's an uncle to Alecks Orlov by marriage. A small anarchist sect has gotten wind of all this, and one of their members, a Felicks, travels to England. He hopes that an exiled Russian political activist killing the Czar's nephew in England (which allows exiled Russian dissidents within its borders) will put the kibosh on these talks, and spare millions of young Russians from being drawn into a war they know and care nothing about.

There's also the fact that Felicks knew Lady Lydia Walden (Stephen's wife, and Orlov's aunt) long ago, before her marriage, and the Walden's daughter, Charlotte, has reached the age of 18, which means she's being sent out into society now. But she's much more interested in the inequity of the world she's just now seeing, the fact of which - along with quite a few other things - her parents have kept from her.

I guess I had missed early on when they mentioned the year, so for quite some time I was wondering if Follett was going to explore the futility of Felicks' act. After all; the Russians got drawn into the war because they decided to tangle with the Austro-Hungarians over Serbia (or they saw that as a good opportunity to start a fight that might net them territory). So it seemed as though, even if Felicks succeeded, it wouldn't matter. As it turns out, Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated during the course of the book, and Felicks does contemplate whether he can accomplish anything at this point. But he carries forward, and as it turns out, still isn't allowed to accomplish anything.

I'm actually curious who, if anyone, Follett expects us to root for here. Felicks is at least trying to minimize casualties, but he's willing to kill, willing to burn down an entire building just to smoke out his target. And he's willing to use people who care for him to achieve his goals. He might feel bad about it, but he does it anyway. He is capable of kindness, especially towards people worse off than he is, and his intent is to try and keep many people from dying in a war, by killing just one of the people who treats them as disposable pawns. And he finds essentially all of England's constabulary, government, and even military set against him.

Walden is the very model of conservative English landed gentry. He and Orlov have a conversation where Orlov asks for half of Thrace to be given to the Russians. After all, they would prefer Russian rule to Ottoman. Walden notes they would prefer self-rule even more, and Orlov basically laughs and responds that neither he, Walden, not either of their respective governments actually care what the Thracians want, and Walden agrees. Which pretty well sums it up for Walden. He's had a very privileged life, but either he can't see that, or he does see it but has decided it suits him just fine.

Lydia drives me nuts because she can't make a decision. When confronted with a man from her past, set against her present family, even once she understands Felicks goal and that Stephen bars his path, she chooses to . . . take laudanum. Swell. I suppose I feel bad for her, because a lot of her actions and decisions over the previous 18 years seemed to be in reaction to how she was raised, and the fact she was told feelings and thoughts which are totally natural, were actually wrong and evil, and she was wrong to be having them. So I think she drugs herself to try and shut that part of herself down. But at a certain, she needs to do SOMETHING. At least try to warn Felicks off, or convince him to run away with her. Or warn Stephen. Or warn Orlov. Or kill one or all of them herself. But flippin' take action, make a choice, even if it's a conscious decision to sit back and see how things play out. I wouldn't necessarily respect her for that, but I might more than I do for trying to drug herself to the point she forgets what she was worrying about entirely.

Follett spends a lot of time demonstrating the British upper class haven't a clue what it's like for the lower classes. They have all the resources, all the power, and they use it to ensure their goals are carried out. And at the end, after Felicks actually did outmaneuver them, they use their influence to essentially wipe away Felicks' act, and indeed, his very existence. So I guess I was supposed to root for the underdog, or maybe it's just me. I rooted for the assassin when I read The Day of the Jackal, too. Or it's Charlotte who is the key. Seeing the world, being outraged by poverty, by the way women are treated, are ignored, are blamed for things that are done to them, and wanting to change all that. Maybe the point is that Felicks' methods won't work, because there are always more aristocrats than a lone person can handle, but the aristocrats will gradually be overcome by the subsequent generations, who will see the world differently, and won't be satisfied with as much of it as their predecessors.

'The train appeared, smoke billowing from the funnel of the engine. I could kill Orlov now, Felicks thought, and he felt momentarily the thrill of the hunter as he closes with his prey; but he had already decided not to do the deed today. He was here to observe, not to act. Most anarchist assassinations were bungled because of haste or spontaneity, in his view. He believed in planning and organization, which were anathema to many anarchists; but they did not realize that a man could plan his own actions - it was when he began to organize the lives of others that he became a tyrant.'

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