Saturday, April 05, 2008

In Docx's 'Pravda,' little steps build a life

Pravda begins with an odd, frantic conversation between Maria and Gabriel, mother and son, the former in St Petersburg, Russia, the latter in London. It's not a typical mother-son conversation, interspersed with calls to "inhabit yourself fully" and "to be fierce in the face of all the cowardice you see around you."

Maria is not well. A passionate Marxist in her youth, she has witnessed her health—and her ideology—wither with time. There is a desperation in her voice, an urgency that impels Gabriel to catch the next flight to St Petersburg. After much trouble, he lands in her apartment only to find her dead. This is the template on which Docx starts his book, and it is a fascinating, superb read.

Soon, we are introduced to the other characters: Gabriel's twin sister Isabella, who is a PR manager for a New York media firm, and their estranged father Nicholas, a failed painter prone to grandiose ideas about the artist's place in the world. Then there's Arkady, a gifted—but penniless—pianist and his heroin addict flatmate, Henry. There is something in Maria's Marxist youth that points to a connection with Arkady, and Docx takes his time to fully flesh it out.

In the meanwhile, he gives us a novel rich in scope and description. Spanning four cities, Pravda is a biting commentary on the state of the world today. This is brought out most tellingly in the contrast between Gabriel and Arkady, two men fated to discover the bond between them.

While Gabriel has typical upper-class concerns of juggling two lovers, Arkady faces the prospect of his talent going to waste in the absence of any resources. Via its astute portrayals, the novel's chief concern is to illustrate how seemingly minor decisions can make the difference between glory and failure. While Gabriel is too intelligent to not concede the weightlessness of his life, it is Arkady—and his devoted flatmate—who live "real" lives, lives governed not "by exercise of the mind but of the body."

This is Docx's second novel, and closely missed out on a Booker nomination last year. Having read it, one can only rue the Booker committee's decision. But take heart, Docx is here to play a long innings.

Also read this.

(This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.)

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