Petersburg was one of the eight books I had ordered to satiate my travel appetite after reading an article on Lonely Planet. This is the second book that I am reviewing from the list. I had earlier read Flights by Olga Tocarzcuk, a polish writer. You can find the review here.
Petersburg by Andrei Bely is not so much of a travelogue on the second largest city of Russia, as it is a glimpse into the rich historical and cultural past of the vast land that has made massive contributions to the world of art. It is an ode to the personalities who have helped shape the Russia we know today – an amalgamation of East and West. The book is considered to be one of the greatest works of Russian literature. Bely tells his story with theatrical flair. He has the uncanny ability to ever so often pause and push the story in the background, while he takes centerstage and talks directly to the reader. As the story resumes again, he disappears, but only for a bit and always lurking in the corners eager to jump back in. Reading Petersburg is like attending a broadway musical, it is an experience in itself.
Interestingly, over the years many comparisons have been drawn between Bely’s Petersburg and Ulysses. In fact, Petersburg is also known as the Russian Ulysses. Had I known that this novel is compared to James Joyce’s masterpiece I would have thought twice before picking it up. I’m glad I found this when I was half-way through the novel, but I won’t lie, it did throw me off a little. Truth be told, I have never read anything about the Russian culture or history and only after a few pages of reading Petersburg I realised I have missed out on a big part in my literary journey. I do plan to rectify this oversight, and as I finish up Petersburg, I am already preparing myself to read War and Peace soon.
At over 500 pages, Petersburg is a long novel but covers a period of only 24-hours. The plot centres around Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, a senator and a decorated officer at the Institution. He is described as an unattractive man, but one with a significant amount of power and control. While his contribution to politics over the years helped him climb the social ladder, he is looked down by the masses for the same reason. His family comprises of his wife, Anna Petrovna, who left two and a half years ago for an Italian artist only to return later in the story and a son, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, who spends most of his time reading and attending parties. The setting is 1905. Russia has lost in the Russo-Japanese war and terrorism is on the rise. There are rumours of an impending attack on Apollon Apollonovich. On his way to office, Apollon crosses path with ‘The Stranger’ a suspicious looking character, who is later identified as Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin. Only later does Apollon recall having met Dudkin with Nikolai, when the latter was visiting his son. Unbeknownst to Apollon, Nikolai is part of a terrorist organisation. The plot revolves around delivering a mysterious package to Nikolai and a task bestowed on him to kill his own father.
Petersburg has elements of mystery, drama, romance and humour. It is an unconventional and intelligent work of art. All the characters in the book shine through – whether it is the jealous and helpless husband, Sergei Sergeyevich, or the star-crossed lovers, Nikolai and Sofya. I enjoyed reading the book in bits and pieces, but always felt like an outsider who is trying hard to get in. I would recommend this book to readers who either have a deep knowledge of Russian literature or have lived/currently living in Petersburg. There is a reason for this distinction and allow me to elaborate on that. (Unfortunately for me, I don’t fit in either of the categories and therefore I reached the end of the novel rather painstakingly)
Firstly, Petersburg is adorned with Russian art and literature. Pushkin and Gogol make regular appearances with their poetry – which may or may not be linked to the plot and may or may not have a direct reference to the story. The book has a notes section which provides very little information and after a point I skipped the back and forth. Many times I felt lost and in need of a crash course on Russian literature and the cultural history of 19th and 20th century. My lack of knowledge made the read frustrating and less enjoyable.
Secondly, Petersburg city is a living, breathing creature in Bely’s novel. 75% of the text is dedicated to the description of the city and its character. A good knowledge of St. Petersburg would make it an enjoyable read. I tried to visualise and be part of the narration by referring to Google map, but it is just not the same.
Overall, I liked the book. And I would love to revisit it one day, with a reading buddy who has knowledge of the Russian culture, language or is native to the great and beautiful city of St. Petersburg.