1920s, Bolsheviks, book review, censorship, Civil War, deprivation, dogma, ideals betrayed, incompetent leaders, Janet Fitch, Maxim Gorky, oppression, Petersburg, poets, Russian Revolution, Yevgeny Zamiatin
Review: Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch
Little, Brown, 2019. 730 pp. $30
It’s March 1919, and the Bolshevik state totters because of civil war, the leaders’ incompetence and corruption, and deprivation deep enough to make people regret the tsar. Marina Makarova Kuriakin, though born to a wealthy bourgeois family, sympathizes with the revolution’s goals but believes they’ve gotten lost and fears the common people will once more pay the price.
Too outspoken for her own good, at a time when a carelessly uttered word can have fatal consequences, Marina constantly puts herself on the line, whether by arguing in public or insisting on learning facts that other people would rather not talk about. More immediately, however, she’s pregnant by someone other than her husband, and neither man knows she’s having a child. Her first concern, therefore, is to find a safe place to wait until the birth.
The sequel to The Revolution of Marina M., Chimes of a Lost Cathedral tells the heart-breaking story of ideals betrayed by humorless, dogmatic, power-hungry manipulators who, when human behavior fails to match their theoretical framework, kill the humans they hold responsible. Stark suffering, paranoia, and oppression abound, usually in combination.
Among other Bolshevik cruelties or acts of negligence, Fitch addresses the plunder of the peasantry for their foodstuffs; overcrowded orphanages that make the Dickensian versions look like paradise; or censorship and suspicion of poets, of whom Marina is one. Through her trials and travels, which must eventually lead her back to Petersburg, her birthplace, Chimes provides a wide lens on one of modern history’s greatest upheavals.
Marina also lives as fully as she can under the circumstances, which means, in part, that she has many love affairs. Sexual freedom belongs to her own revolution, and though I sense a sharper feminist edge in Marina M. than I do here, you can see still see it. Marina searches for partners who understand how please a woman, and she points out where the Bolsheviks have reneged on promises to value women’s contributions to their society as well as men’s.
For all that, though, I think the previous volume does better. Much as I like the later narrative, it’s got too much in it, not all of which fits comfortably. Marina’s penchant for argumentation seems forced at times; would she really be that careless? But the real problem is the overall approach. Chimes feels less coherent and incisive than its predecessor, and I can think of at least one plot point that’s both predictable and convenient, though Fitch integrates it emotionally. (I don’t want to give it away; suffice to say it involves one more loss of many.) Though this book is somewhat shorter than its older sibling, it feels longer, maybe because I sense that the author is saying, “Okay, now, let me show you this.”
To be fair, I like a lot of the this. I’ll never forget the orphanage scenes or those on the awful, overcrowded trains, which stink even more of hatred and backbiting than they do of bodily secretions. Also, when Marina meets literary lights like Anna Akhmatova, Maxim Gorky, and Osip Mandelstam, plus many more whose names I didn’t know, I get that keen sense of betrayal among writers who numbered among the first Russians to support Lenin, for all the good it did them or their country.
In that regard, I suspect the author intends a jab at cancel culture, considering how much discussion there is of politics perverting art. In that line, I note that one writer who makes a cameo appearance, Yevgeny Zamiatin, has surfaced in recent debates about censorship, and his 1921 ground-breaking, dystopian novel We, said to have influenced both Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, has been reissued. Is Zamiatin’s presence in the narrative a coincidence? Maybe not.
I also admire Fitch’s prose, as I did with Marina M. Passages like this one, about the need to tell stories and what purpose they serve, take flight:
Humans tell stories about themselves, where they’re from, what they do in their work, what they’re doing here instead of home with their families. Everyone has some sort of story. Each human being walks around with an epic poem of himself, just waiting to stand up after dinner and recite it, poor bards that we are. Something about humans, we want to be known. We think we’re a story: beginning, middle, and end — and this is how it ended up. But of course, our stories have no sense, no rhythm, no meaning — an unfolded fan made more sense than human life. In any case, I didn’t want to tell my story. It was as bitter as uncured olives.
More episodic than its predecessor, yet giving a vivid taste of time, place, and character, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral is worth your thought and effort. But do read the other novel first.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.