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Want to Understand History? You Have to See It All at Once
A Parable about Time for our Time. Reviewing ‘A History of the Island’ by Eugene Vodolazkin
Every novel has a setting, the particular time and place the primary action occurs. Eugene Vodolazkin has always played with time in his novels. Interlacing timelines and other tricks of chronology propel his narratives forward or wink from the edges. I reviewed one of those here last year, Brisbane.
In his newest, however, time is the place. For A History of the Island history itself is the setting. This allows Vodolazkin to tackle the great themes of history: choice and chance, pride and power, rivalry and revolution, delusion and demagoguery. Never, I should add, with the tone of a lecturer: Vodolazkin simply unfurls his fable and invites us into the wild fantasy.
And that’s what it is. Whereas Vodolazkin’s prior novels transpire in recognizably real worlds, A History of the Island is something beyond reality, hovering above an imaginary land, surveying whole centuries with a glance.
The Broad Scope
To claim history itself for a setting, the novelist employs a few unconventional storytelling devices. The story of the Island reaches back into the distant past, and so he relays events through a simple conceit—the record of medieval chroniclers, annals kept for a king as the official report on events of the kingdom. As one chronicler dies, another picks up the responsiblility and carries the story forward.
This allows Vodolazkin to adopt the same sort of brusk, schematic narrative you find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Russian Primary Chronicle, or—for that matter—the Hebrew books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. Of course, that’s hardly the style a modern reader is looking for in a novel. Fret not.
One mark of a good novel is introspection, the author and his characters directly or indirectly exploring motive—the more conflicted the better. Attenuated, summarial accounts provide little foothold for such manouevers, so Vodolazkin interweaves sections of his official chronicle with commentary by the island’s last monarchs, Parfeny and Ksenia, who are curiously alive for almost 350 years of the official history.
What brings these two strands together? A modern publisher is supposedly releasing an edition of the chronicle and solving for the same problem Vodolazkin is: They’ve got to jazz this dry stuff up. Who better to do so than the mysteriously age-defying former rulers?
The reader is glad for their interjections, as the official story relays oddities, secrets, and crimes. One chronicler censors a prophecy and hides it away for unclear reasons. Another rips out years and years for reasons disturbingly more obvious.
Cast of Characters
Vodolazkin populates his setting with many figures. They tend to come on and off the stage quickly, as you might imagine in a narrative that covers hundreds and hundreds of years. To keep track of the slippery cast of rulers in the early chapters I jotted down a family tree in the front of my copy (a little trick of C. S. Lewis’s).
Many of these characters are highly memorable, even hilarious. Parfeny and Ksenia, the Island’s last monarchs, are deposed in a coup and replaced by a string of dictators, patterned on Soviet-era chairmen, whose every impulse, whim, and spasm become policy. (There where moments when I thought, Wait, that’s Stalin! And That’s Trotsky! But maybe not.)
There’s the revolutionary Kasyan who insists on being called His Brightest Futurity, and imagines that since history operates by clear and immutable laws one can simply project events into the future with dogmatic certainty. The Island’s scholars discard history as a study of the past in exchange for “future history” and its projections—“scientific foresight.”
Vodolazkin handles these figures with deadpan humor. Vlas, a former beekeeper and the ruling chairman’s bodyguard, becomes chairman himself after breaking the neck of his predecessor. “It was not Vlas’s fault,” says Vodolazkin, “that he turned the chairman’s head the wrong direction at the critical time.”
Upon assuming control, Vlas’s fascination with bees emerges. “The bee is a teacher for us all,” he declares and as he descends into madness, begins buzzing like a bee, and wearing a full-size bee suit. “It was obvious to all,” says the chronicler, “that it was becoming ever more difficult for him to run the government with that sort of mentality.”
During this period, Vlas’s son-in-law, an accomplished illusionist, is named Minister of Development and Magic Tricks, though “Valdemar had not sawed his assistants in a long time: he had transferred that sort of activity to carving up the Island’s treasury.”
Outside the Stream
Vodolazkin’s unfolding farce becomes a savage critique of politics and the predictable corrupting nature of power disconnected from transcendent value. Removed from power and living years after the events in question, the supercentenarian Parfeny and Ksenia have the necessary perspective to appreciate the significance of these events and their own role in them.
While Parfeny says at one point only a chronicler can record history with the necessary objectivity, it’s clear from their commentary the chroniclers are carried along by the currents they record—products of, and participants in, the times. “To describe something flowing,” says Parfeny, “one requires a static point, somewhere at the intersection of good and evil.”
The only people who fit that bill are Parfeny and Ksenia, not perfectly but sufficiently. Revolutionary Kasyan’s immutable laws of history feign a sort of objectivity, forecasting with hubristic certainty how events must transpire. But all they do is rob individuals of their freedom, their agency and choice.
The wrestling match between personal decision and destiny is a recurring theme in Vodolazkin’s work. As he says in a prior novel, The Aviator,
A historical view makes everyone into hostages of great societal events. I see things differently, though: exactly the opposite. Great events grow in each separate individual.
Or as the final chronicler says in A History of the Island, “History is but a path along which a person walks. Along that path, one may increase goodness or sow evil: that depends on each person’s choice.”
If you want to fully understand history, you have to see the whole thing: the selfishness and sacrifices, petty motives, pointless quarrels. None of us can do that. Fortunately, we don’t have to see it all to take the next right step on whatever path we walk.
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