This book is from 1998 and it was nominated for the Booker Prize. In it, we meet a former British citizen, now more or less repatriated as a Soviet/Russian citizen. We find him at the opening of the novel turning 80 and his much younger Russian wife is fondly preparing him for the small celebration of his life. From here we are taken back some fifty or so year to his arrest at the hands of the KGB in Leipzig as a suspected spy, to a foregone conclusion of a trial, and his imprisonment in a Siberia gulag for 25 years. In the gulag, we find him doing what mostly prisoners who survive their imprisonments in such places do, finding something to do with himself, making a new life out the circumstances given him, and embracing the luck that does keep him upright. When he is released, we find him settling into a new Soviet life.
What’s interesting about this book is that it’s not really a celebration of anything — the release, his spirit, or anything else, but more so a testament to the kinds of hardship many people are given and the kinds of listless and thankless ways we simply put up with them. It’s not really depressing, because rather than feeling pessimistic, it’s more realistic and familiar. I do think this book has captured something here, even though in the long run, I didn’t find myself particularly enjoying the book all that much. For a short book it’s a bit of a slog, which might also be a recounting of its main leitmotif.