Surviving the gulag
In a heart-warming salute to the resilience of the human spirit, Hong Kong's adopted writer Martin Booth tells the story of British citizen Alexander Bayliss, sent to a Russian gulag in the early 1950s after being accused of spying.
After 26 years of hard labour in the prison mine, he was freed and ever since has chosen to live in the tiny village of Myshkino, with the daughter and the son-in-law of a fellow inmate who died when a coal-face collapsed.
Now, on his 80th birthday, Bayliss is forced to make an important decision: to stay put in post-communist Russia, or leave a community where he is revered for his kindness and wisdom.
As he walks through the village, greeting old friends, he thinks back to his quarter-century of imprisonment and the laughter and sadness he shared with his fellow zeks (prisoners).
Even in the midst of filth and misery, there was room for gallows humour. Each level of the mine had a letter, such as gallery R, nicknamed 'R for Rasputin who rogered the royals', 'S for Stalin who sold us into slavery'. Booth switches effortlessly between past and present. Bayliss realises that while most would want to forget that past, to put it away would deny who he was and dismiss as unimportant his loyal companions in the gulag.
'The lesson I have learned is to accept, not with docility but with understanding. I have learned, in short, to come to terms with the inevitable,' he says.
Booth, writer of several novels including Hiroshima Joe and non-fiction works such as Opium: A History, uses succinct and unaffected prose, reflecting the simple lives of his characters, each described with detailed care.
His portrayal of life in the gulag is haunting; members of the work unit to which Bayliss belongs struggle to survive each day with remarkable stoicism.
To the guards and the system that took their freedom, each inmate is just a number. When Bayliss is finally released and given his papers, he realises that, for the first time in 26 years, a prison guard has called him by his name.
Kirill, his closest friend and head of the work unit, says about the gulag: 'Men go mad thinking about the past, the future. Here there is no then and next. There is only now. Live for now.' They endure by disappearing into their own mental worlds, where they dream of soft beds, cold beers and gorgeous women. Kirill dreams of his little daughter, while Bayliss creates a lush, imaginary garden.
There are echoes in this novel of Tolstoy's peasant philosophers, such as Platon Karatayev in War And Peace. But Booth skilfully avoids pastiche.
Booth's imagery paints vivid pictures of the Russian countryside.
The narrative is beautifully paced, building to the penultimate chapter when Bayliss must make his momentous decision.
The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth Dewi Lewis, $115