Wondering About Books That Don’t Exist, Jamming, 16/11/2017

So I’ve been reading an old book by a kind of obscure author these days. A totally serendipitous find. I grabbed The Fall of a Titan when McMaster’s Philosophy Department library was clearing out a lot of old books.

I’m not going to get into the storyline or the themes of it today. I want to talk about a curious little feeling that you get as a reader when a book surprises you – a sensible decision for the story that still shocks you.

So, no serious spoilers. I won’t be too specific. But there’s a character who’s been acting as a petty bully all the way through the first half of the book. He’s a teenaged jackass – Biff Tannen, but in 1930s Russia instead of 1950s California.

Whether or not the photo is real, Stalin could laugh.
But he's 19 years old, a student at the local university. He’s coasted by his whole life on just pushing people around. Now, he tries to do the same thing to the protagonist, rough him up and intimidate him into doing what he wants. On top of that, he has stupid, short-sighted, damned idiotic reasons for wanting to push the main character around.

This history professor is a veteran of the Russian civil war – when he was 19, he was sneaking up on Menshevik soldiers in the woods and slicing their throats open. Of course, you know what’s going to happen as soon as the kid starts a fight with this guy.

Yet the narrative has set this character up as a major foil to the novel’s female lead. So we expect him to follow her through the entire narrative, tormenting her. The sudden end to that relationship is a shock, given the expectations we had through watching their story.

Perfectly logical, yet utterly shocking. It’s a beautiful moment.

The Fall of a Titan is definitely not a perfect book. Some of his descriptions are a little too straightforward. Sometimes, Gouzenko strains to find the best image. But the careful logic of how his characters build his narrative is beautifully assembled.

Igor Gouzenko only wrote one book of fiction, this one. Other than that, he lived a quiet life in Mississauga, in a modest apartment. He had the remarkable distinction of being the first Soviet defector to the West. Three days after the final surrender of the Second World War, he marched from the Soviet embassy to RCMP headquarters with a pile of evidence of Russian espionage.

Yet The Fall of a Titan was his only book of fiction. I would have liked to see him pen more stories of the Stalinist era, or develop some dramatic novel about life in an immigrant community in the grey years of mid-20th century Ontario. Those don’t exist.

But what beautiful, fine-tuned books they’d be. Maybe I’ll imagine them.

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