An interesting story about a young woman whose father dies of Huntington’s Disease, and who is herself carrying the markers. Her doctors tell her that the average age for onset for Huntingtons passed down through the paternal line is about 32, so at age 20, when she has the tests done, she figures she has about another ten years of disease-free life.
She has a minor interest in chess, having learned how to play from her father, and the point when she first beat him, at age 12, was the point when his own symptoms began to kick in strongly. Her father had always had an interest in the Soviet Union, especially the world chess champion, Aleksandr Bezetov, a prodigy in his teens in the ’80s. Dad has followed his career, keeping clippings and news articles about him.
After he dies, his daughter finds all of this while cleaning out his things, and among them was a copy of a letter he had written to Bezetov asking him how he continued on when faced with certain loss. How does one proceed in the face of doom. He received back a brief reply from what appeared to be a secretary, saying that Bezetov was not able to answer the letter due to time constraints.
Thirty years old, facing her own end game, Irina, now a professor at a Boston university, ends the relationship with her boyfriend, cuts all ties, quits her job, sells everything and embarks on a quest to find Bezetov and get his answer.
The story is told in alternate parts, in first person for Irina, and third person for Bezetov. Bezetov’s story is wonderful, full of the details of Soviet life in Leningrad in the ’80s — the corruption, the violence, the Big Brother police state. After a short stint as a reactionary, distributing an illegal dissident broadside, he is offered a good life by the government if he will stop that nonsense, get on with his chess, and work at making Mother Russia proud as a chess champion. After one of his friends is killed in an ‘accidental’ bus accident that leaves another friend maimed, he sees that prudence is the better part of valor, and takes up the offer, and eventually finds himself rich and known world wide.
At some point, he decides to become a dissident once again, in the time of Putin in 2007. He is amassing a coalition of dissenters, and is planning to run for president against the handpicked successor Putin.
This is where the paths of the two principles intersect, and form the crux of the story.
The title of the book comes from the title of the newspaper the four friends put out, “The Partial History of Lost Causes”, because it contains, among poetry and other articles, a long section listing arrests, detentions, searchesa around Leningrad in the past month. It becomes a metaphor for the overarching theme of the book, because as Bezetov says himself, he has no hope of winning, and not much hope of not being assasinated. His movement has little hope of changing much of anything, and his marriage has no hope of continuing, and Irina has no hope for a long and disease-free life.
Irina telegraphs to the reader early on this main theme when she tells us she has no interest in making any investments in lost causes.
Want some quotes? OK.
About her father: He was a mind, first and foremost, and a mind is an elaborate system of pulleys and levers and delicate balances. And when one piece is missing, the whole system has lost its integrity.
Elizabeta laughed then, a complicated, multidimensional laugh filled with genuine appreciation for a bad joke, as well as mild derision toward its badness and a faint undertone of self-reproach for laughing. It was the kind of laugh you could write a university thesis about.
She was in the doorway, and her eyes were looking somewhere beyond Aleksandr’s. “I’m sorry I bothered you.” But she spent another moment not leaving.
But it’s easy to judge, we’re born to judge; we live for it, really. It’s the way we decide that we are the self we are instead of all the other selves we might have been. And I judged enthusiastically.
Chess was a metaphor for war, but sex wasn’t a metaphor for anything.
What you imagine is what you remember, and what you remember is what you’re left with.
The writing, while excellent, is full of self-conscious metaphors, stocked with numerous descriptions of odors that smelled like something tangible and something emotional, : “it smelled like sweat and regret”. There is a great deal of internal musing and self-reflection, and thank goodness for the basic storyline, because much as I adore reading the internal ruminations of the characters, I am All About The Story. The book is relentlessly earnest and dour, and smacks of writing workshop. And lo! and behold!, there in the acknowledgments is the shout out to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop which ‘made this book possible’. Of course it did.
This is not to say I did not like the book; I did. Very much. But when a book aspires to be high litrachoor, it leaves itself open to a more critical analysis than one with lesser ambitions. That’s why the literary prizes are given to the wonderfully superlative books, and not to the merely excellent.