Pub. Date: September 6, 2016
Publisher: PENGUIN GROUP Viking
The year is 1922, our location is Moscow. Our protagonist is a charming Count who happens to be an unrepentant aristocrat after the shift from royalty to Bolsheviks. He is declared a Non-Person by the communist authorities and sentenced to live the remainder of his life under house arrest (for him this is in the grandest hotel in the city situated within sight of the Kremlin). He is moved from his luxurious rooms into a one room service quarter in the hotel’s attic. Still, all in all, he is lucky that he is not shot or sent to Siberia like many of his peers. The story begins in 1922 and ends in 1954. We will experience the many changing leaders in Russia from the Czar to Stalin to Khrushchev. The historical background is so rich it may feel overwhelming to the reader, especially if one is not familiar with the Soviet Union. If this is true for you, I suggest watching the movie Dr. Zhivago before picking up this extraordinary book, which I believe is a masterpiece.
The tale simmers with humor and hosts a cast of splendid characters. When the count befriends a nine year old girl, they explore the hotel’s many inner unseen nooks and crannies. He is often in need of mending his trousers since a grown man doesn’t usually crawl around on his hands and knees as he does with this child. Yet this is exactly how, crouched in a hidden space, he is able to secretly witness the new regime while they are in a committee meeting. He is tickled to grasp the irony that the successful revolutionaries, who fought a class war, now have leaders who are as capable of becoming as drunk on power and desire extravagant living as anyone from the royalty whom they declared war on, only now those in power have different titles and wear dreary clothing (“meet the new boss same as the old boss”).
The author creates heartbreaking scenes written with hints of gentle wittiness. Since the Great Patriotic War, all the kitchen staff is gone. Our Count has become the head waiter (of course with no pay, though he still is the most valuable person in the kitchen other than the chef). One night, an assumed beggar is not let into the kitchen entrance until he is recognized by our protagonist. The beggar is a brilliant poet who was the Count’s college roommate and dear friend. For years he came to visit the Count to share ideas with him while he is under his house arrest. After not coming around for a long period of time his friend returns on the above mentioned night looking like a crippled vagabond. His dear friend is now a broken old man, clearly showing signs of torture. As the protagonist watches his friend leaving the hotel, limping onto the streets of the Red Square, he admits to himself that he no longer understands the gist of his beloved Russia, while simultaneously realizing life has been generous to him.
In a way, A Gentleman in Moscow reminded me of Robert Bolt’s work on Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. A man stubbornly refusing to bend his beliefs even if it means living year after year imprisoned. Throughout the seasons, our Count strives to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. He never stops trying to be a man of purpose, even while remaining behind the Iron Curtain. He never complains of his situation or loses sight that life has been good to him. In return he wishes and often succeeds in doing good for others. And amazingly, he never forgets to laugh.
I’m sure some will feel the book’s humor can feel absurd with a “Hogan’s Heroes” theme. How bad can living in a grand hotel be? For me the author avoids this potential problem when the Count has a suicide attempt reminding us just how hard it can be when one loses their freedom. Also, by creating one of the most memorable characters I have ever met. Even under oppression the Count does not lose his civility or his elegance. Most importantly, from the beginning to the end of the novel, he remains a proud Russian who is a moral and decent human being. Learning Russian history in a novel is a good feeling. Remembering to keep moral discipline in one’s own life is a great feeling. Get the book and meet the Count.