A challenging read
How long do you give a book to grab your interest before you put it down in favor of another one? Do you feel guilty or possibly stupider for not completing the book? I have found that I am sometimes too persistent and stubborn in trying to finish a book, and can therefore not get to other great reading that is waiting for me. These are some of the issues that I had to face as I finished reading Molotov’s Magic Lantern, by Rachel Polonsky.
The book had a very interesting premise: The author moved into a flat that Molotov (a well-known Soviet leader who signed literally thousands of death warrant’s during his lifetime) had once occupied. In it, she found an old bookshelf that still had books that Molotov had collected over his lifetime. Building from that, Polonsky decides to travel around Russia, letting the books and authors that Molotov collected guide her through the past three hundred-plus years of Russian history.
I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards Russian history as of late (reading such books as The Tiger, Travels in Siberia, and The Bloody White Baron), all of which made me want to learn more about Russia. Molotov’s Magic Lantern had nearly the opposite effect on me. There were so many Russian names, so many places, and so many assumptions by the author that the reader was already steeped in Russian history and geography that reading the book felt dizzying and purposefully confusing at times. The book will often jump from one century to the next and then to the previous one all within two pages, making it difficult for even ardent armchair historians to keep all the players and locations straight. A structure that was built around a specific time period instead of the travelogue may have been less confusing, but would also have defeated the purpose of Polonsky’s ‘literary road trip’. In the end, I felt that I had to study before picking the book back up, which may be exciting for some, but I found it more frustrating.
I certainly do have positive things to say about the book. Polonsky is capable of great writing, making me want to continually read her stylistic phrases that truly do capture what a Russian fishing village is like, and how a Russian banya (bathhouse) feels during a Russian snowstorm. She quotes from many of the most famous Russian authors, such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky, which have now forced me to add their books to my already voluminous reading list. It is somewhat rare to find a non-fiction writer that places you in the middle of what is happening with such evocative and descriptive writing and Polonsky proved that she is capable of it in Molotov’s Magic Lantern.
All that said I've decided that this is simply a difficult book to get through. It deserves focus, patience and plenty of determination, in addition to a healthy background in Russian history and literature. It took me all of the 12 weeks that I had the book to finish it, mainly due to a lack of ambition to pick it up while I was in the midst of other books. Finally I gave in and read the last 200 pages in about a week. To say it isn’t rewarding would be untrue, but it does require motivation to pick it up, especially if you are in the middle of a more exciting book. The Russian background makes for a great setting, but the Russian history makes for a cloudy story especially if the men and women that populate it pop up across hundreds of pages without much background. If you enjoy Russian history and want to get a feel for how Russia is now compared to the years under Soviet rule, this book may be for you. Just be prepared for a book that will challenge you.