Review of Roland Merullo's (Micronesia 1979-80) A Russian Requiem

russian-reuiem-140A Russian Requiem
Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979–80)
AJAR Contemporaries
March 2011
461 pages
Paperback $22

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02; Madagascar 2002–03)

ROLDAN MERULLO’S 1993 NOVEL, A Russian Requiem, has been re-released by AJAR Contemporaries. Coming new to the book, I can’t help but draw parallels between his take on the last days of the USSR and the contemporary changing of the guard we are fortunate to be witnessing in North Africa, bloody as it’s been. For those of us old enough — yes, there is already a generation too young to remember drunk Boris Yeltsin waving the Russian flag from the hood of a tank in Red Square — the lightning quick obliteration of the Iron Curtain seemed, to me, at least — having practiced hiding under my school desk in Chicago through the ’80s as the nuns conducted our nuclear attack drills — something so monumental and landscape shattering as to think it could never happen again.

But it is happening again, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and in other Arab nations large and small, with the end game not in sight, and reversal still very much possible. As Merullo writes from one of his Russian character’s points of view, someone who desperately longs to see the change happening all around him come to fruition, “. . . [yet] things could go on more or less as they had been . . .: barely enough food, a place to go and work, a place to come home to, a completely fogbound future.”

These are heady times, ones that pull our Peace Corps hearts to our laptop screens as it reawakens those feelings that carried us abroad in the first place. Certainly we have no doubts that radical Islam could easily sweep into power, or that the old regimes could simply put on new faces and continue their reigns of plunder. But we also know that what Lincoln said at Gettysburg remains more applicable and fecund than ever: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

A Russian Requiem is this same story as it unfolded twenty years ago in what we now call Russia. Taking his cue from Graham Greene, Merullo crafts a political thriller with a profound moral compass, chronicling a former Soviet apparatchik’s conflicted emotions as he decides between the safety of his position and the real hopes of freedom he has for his country. Sergei Propenko has been charged with hosting an American NGO officer coming to distribute food in the grim mining town of Vostok. In Moscow, “Gorbachev-Yeltsin-Puchkov-Pavlov” all vie for power in the uncertain flux of the Soviet last days, while the miners of Vostok strike and thugs of the old order assassinate political opponents. Into the fray steps Anton Czesich, an aging American functionary who once believed in ideals and lost them when he began to grow his diplomat’s potbelly. The novel begins with a dire act of cold-blooded murder and culminates in an act of sexual violence that in some ways “births” the new Russian Republic.

Along with the throwback Soviet politics detailed here, Merullo’s narrative can occasionally take on a ponderous quality, but his insights into the minds of people who have given up their whole lives to maintain a system they no longer believe are as trenchant as they are disturbing. Take this passage, after Propenko witnesses a food riot among the Russian peasantry:

It wasn’t until the courtyard has started to fill up with men and women from the street that the hard crust of logic had cracked and broken open and all the hidden muck had come bubbling to the surface, all the anger, all the desperation, everything the old communist platitudes had masked for so long. It wasn’t until one plump woman had started scolding him and shaking a finger in his face that he’d realized the crowd in the courtyard must see him as . . . [a Party Member], that he’d aligned himself with the forces that had been crushing people all these years, holding them down, suffocating them . . .. His whole adult life, twenty years at the Council, had the smell of a lie to it now.

The novel divides itself between the American Czesich’s desperation to redeem himself after an impotent and failed life, and the Russian Propenko’s similar moral quandary as even his daughter puts herself in harm’s way to usher in change. Though he wrote the book after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Merullo does well to capture the uncertainty Russians had about where the future was taking them. “People walked, or rode clattering bicycles,” Czesich observes of the desolate Soviet landscape, “or squeezed themselves in wheezing, mud-spattered buses. They had their teeth fixed without charge by dentists who had never used Novocain or X rays, never touched a meter of floss . . .. [But] Since his last visit, the styles had changed. He saw shirtless boys in black leather jackets now, and girls with orange spiked hair . . ..”

Readers familiar with Merullo’s novels will find this worthy reissue an entertaining window onto a near-past that’s quickly being forgotten. Merullo also revisits territory recognizable to fans of Leaving Losapos, with a highly sexualized woman the hero can’t bring himself to fully possess, shouts out to Boston, and a number of decent fist-fighting scenes.

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s new novel Mule, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

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