Amor Towles’ ‘A gentleman in Moscow’ had come into my notice on a couple of my visits to the tiny corner of English books at Hugendubel’s store. Other times, I picked up books which I had heard of, or picked none at all. One day, I went in with a friend who was visiting Germany. She was looking for a book on trains, for her father who loved trains. We found nothing that fit her need, but I ended up impulsively grabbing this book, which had on its front cover, a man dressed in suit and a fedora, turned around with hands held easy behind his back, looking over the balcony of a high rise building. The title and the cover-page created an endearing picture. He definitely looked a gentleman, could be in his fifties. And the title says, he is in Moscow. This time around, my curiosity got the better of me. What is it that this so-called gentleman, is doing in Moscow? Why in Moscow? How can any man be so much of a gentleman, persistently, that the title of the book on him, especially mentions this trait of his? In a nutshell, what is his story? Now, if that cover-page title combination is not ‘catchy’ for a novel, I don’t know what is.
Now that I think of it, why did I end up purchasing this book, on this particular visit, while on several others, I had noticed it and even read its blurb, but was never pushed over the edge? Perhaps, it was the conversations that I had had while I led my friend to the store? I had been listening about a father who loves trains, and had remembered my own father’s obsession with radios, my grandfather’s with travel, all very gentle-manly attributes. Or perhaps, it was the effect of where I had been in my then current read? I was at a stage in ‘The Truce’, by Primo Levi, where he and the other Jewish prisoners from Monowitz camp had been rescued by the Russian army, and were travelling under the direction and protection of Russians through Poland to their hometowns in Italy. There were a lot of references to the mannerisms of Russian officials, several observations of the contrast between the way the Germans and the Russians worked, which were sometimes the spark of humour in an otherwise depressing state of affairs.
So, it could have been the ‘gentleman’ or the ‘Moscow’ that placed this book in line as a to-be-read and then as a current-read while I was on a train to Frankfurt and further on a plane to India.
Beginning of a new book brings such a refreshing shift to one’s life, I am prompted to compare it to the start of a love-affair or the first few months in a new city. While the latter are irrevocable after sometime, unless altogether attempted all over again (which one cannot afford to do just for the sake of enjoying certain nice emotions in one’s days) , the process of finishing a book and the beginning of another one, beautifully evokes similar feelings in me. Thank God for books, heh? So now, I get to move to Moscow, I believe, with a ‘gentleman’ of fifty, and yes, to a time in history which was the most happening for Russia!
I began to read this one on the train to Frankfurt. A revolutionary poem leads the aristocratic poet to be put under house arrest in Bolshevik Russia. Pretty neat. The poet, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who by the way is the gentleman, is now to spend the rest of his life in a room in the Metropol Hotel in the middle of Moscow. Alright. Now what?
“Dear author, are you going to simply have me, the reader, live inside a Hotel, while the Moscow of 1920s walks and drives, lives and sleeps, blooms and dies, drinks and chats, thrives and transforms over years outside? I don’t think I am going to like that too much. While am here, I would like to actually see all that happening, you know.”
“Sorry but no.”
“Well, then, you better put up a feast of human connections and love and food and conversations and life and philosophy and music and Russian politics and all those things INSIDE the four walls of the Metropol for me.”
And that, people, is exactly what this book is. This is not a feat that an average author can successfully pull off. It takes craftsmanship, aptly compared to that of Dickens, to keep the reader wanting to stay inside a building with the protagonist, and keep staying for almost thirty years. A protagonist like Count Rostov though, makes the task a tad bit easier for the author. The Count is someone who cannot be described in the scope of a few paragraphs. It takes the book, the whole of it to have talked to one’s satisfaction about the Count. But the essential details of his character is laid out very early in the book, and the Count, throughout the book, does not take one single step that places him outside of this basic outline. It is so comfortable to be around him. I could say, I stayed only because of him. And the charming writing style of course.
There were parts in the book which led me to wonder if I am talking to myself. Things that I have thought about at some time or the other in my meagre life, found expression on some pages. I could completely relate to the paragraph which described the pleasures of compactness. As a child, I would be mostly found in some corners of our large ancestral home. The angle made by the staircase with the floor, the rectangular space under a table, the cube formed by the edge of the diwan couch, that of the coffee table and the two walls, were my favourites to name a few. I would set up my own tiny home in these spaces, and live there while I was left under no supervision. I can hear my grandma enquire in an amused way, “Why are you sitting in the Idikkidaavi?” There is a good chance that the word “Idikkidaavi” is not found in a Malayalam dictionary. It could be a household term or a colloquial usage for empty spaces which are bounded by furnitures. But this word has epitomised for me the concept of geometrically constrained spaces. The word sounds a bit congested by itself. More on that later.
The point is, reading that resonates with your own thoughts, is a bliss unparalleled. I had had a similar relationship with Italo Calvino a year ago.
Now, I must say, when I read how the Count passed his first day of house arrest, I was doubtful about how he is going to put up with it for the rest of the years. There is so much you can do to a man, but stripping him of the right to chose where he wants to be, is comparable to stripping him of life itself. It would be very easy to lose heart. Years pass, people come and go at the Metropol, yet, we remain. But at the end of the day, surprisingly, it is never boring, because there is music from Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, there is poetry from Pushkin and Mayakovsky, there is Blini, Caviar and a lot more of delicious food and of course, there is Vodka! And above everything, there are other human beings around.
If I had to use one word to represent ‘A gentleman in Moscow,’ it would be ‘delightful’.It reflects mainly on the warmth of human connections, but also on the acceptance of life as it unfolds and on finding reasons to celebrate despite everything that has gone wrong in one’s life, about not being coy and crushed by these circumstances and keeping one’s will to live intact, the satisfaction of virtue and integrity that comes with doing the right thing. It talks about unusual friendships, ones which developed there, where normally bitterness would have triumphed. It talks of romance and how it ages. It talks of relationships which are not born out of blood, but end up meaning the most to us.
A twenty something feeling her way through life.