The People's Train is, apparently typically for Keneally, a gentle blending and blurring of fact and fiction based on a man whose story the author found in an old biography. It's the story of a Russian immigrant, Artem (pronounced AR-tyom) Samsurov, an escaped political prisoner, who has managed to make his way out of Russia, through Asia and down to pre-World War One Brisbane. Once in Queensland, he finds old habits die hard and becomes involved in union activity, finding time for an affair with a married leftist lawyer, founding a Russian-language workers' newspaper and a brief stint in an Australian jail. Eventually, news comes of a shift in fortunes back in the (future) USSR, and Artem, along with Australian journalist Paddy Dykes, decides that it's time to move back to where the action is (and believe me, when the intrepid duo get to Russia, there's plenty of action).
The book is split into two parts: both are told in the first-person, but where the first section, set in Brisbane, is narrated by Samsurov, the second, following the events in Russia, is seen through Dykes' eyes. It's a clever ploy to allow the story to be told by the foreigner in each case, although the strategy probably works better in the second part than in the first, fascinating as it is to see my adopted home country a century ago. Recently, I discussed the idea of ex-pat literature, and this novel fits nicely into that genre, having the narrator (and the reader) examine familiar objects through new eyes. A further parallel between the two sections is the relationships the two men find themselves in, being led into them by women unwilling to wait to be asked (a fascinating study in intercultural communication!).
The novel deals with the idea of communism or socialism, ideologies which appear slightly discredited in these post-Cold War times, but which were new, exciting and (for many people) somewhat frightening at the start of the twentieth century. Artem and his like weren't just fighting for an abstract theoretical ideal but for the emancipation of their people after centuries of absolute rule by the royal family, and the question posed in this book is how far you should go: is there a danger, in starting a revolution, that your behaviour becomes worse than that of the people you claim are oppressing you?
Another theme addressed is charisma and the way individuals can sway great crowds and even, at times, influence the course of history. We are briefly introduced to Lenin, the man who would cause millions of Russians to rise up and take over their country (and to his eventual successor, who would do a whole lot more...), and he obviously has a certain aura for Artem and his brothers (and sisters) in arms. However, when we switch to seeing events through Paddy's eyes in the second part, it's clear that Artem himself is far from lacking in charisma, persuading the Australian to follow him to Russia and managing to rise to a lofty position in the revolutionary ranks by virtue not only of his connections, but also of his oratory and physical presence.
The People's Train is a fascinating insight into an unquestionably important time, but it does take its time getting into full swing. Like a real locomotive, the start of the journey is slow, and the first-person viewpoint, while useful in some ways, takes away from the descriptive power of the author. However, the pace picks up as the book progresses, and the second half, with the switch from bourgeois Queensland to revolutionary Russia, cranks up the tension, slowly but perceptibly, culminating in a surprising, but fitting, climax.
Keneally hints at the end that the story is far from over, raising the possibility of another book of Artem and Paddy's adventures. While the ride did have a few bumpy moments, I'll be very happy to jump on board again when the next leg of the journey comes around - even if it involves another trans-Siberian trek. Tickets please...
Thanks again to Alysha from Random House (Vintage) Australia for the review copy :)