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Friday, June 26, 2015

Book review - Doctor Zhivago

 Where do I begin? How does one go about reviewing such a tome of a work? Genre, you might say. Tell us about the genre. Is it fiction? Or historical fiction? Is it based on true events? Is it a biography of a real person? Well, it is all of them and none of them. Yet, as the tagline states, its the greatest love story ever told.

The story takes us through the life of Dr. Yuri Zhivago, a fictitious character who might have been any educated bourgeois (suited for a so-called white collared job, if such a thing existed in Russia back then) or the author himself.  Born at the turn of the 19th century, Yuri is a firsthand witness to the Russian revolution of 1905, the October revolution of 1917 and the Civil War thereafter: arguably the most tumultuous time in the history of Russia. A period that also saw a war with Japan, the fall of the Tsars, the rise of the peasants and soldiers, a world war, and experimentation with forms of government – with  general chaos, dissent, atrocities, and complete upheaval of society in the country. 

Yurochka, unfortunately, is born to a wealthy merchant father who abandons him, and is left an orphan at an early age. Adopted by another wealthy household, the Gromyko’s, he studies medicine and marries Tonya Gromyko. Immensely thoughtful and artistically inclined, Yuri is also a poet and a philosopher who often does not think twice before speaking his mind - a quality that lands him in the soup many times. Living in Moscow, he first starts practicing medicine, but then serves as a military doctor in war.  Afterwards, the family relocates to Yuryatin where Tonya’s maternal grandfather was once a steel magnate.  Here, due to lack of any other means of sustenance, the family is forced to do farming to survive. Occupied in physical labor during all summer time, Yuri finds time to write his musings only during winter.

He is then abducted by a revolutionary group, The Forest Brotherhood, to tend to their sick and wounded, and reluctantly ends up being the leader’s confidant. During all these years and in his various journeys from place to place, Zhivago encounters the married yet single mother Lara Antipova every now and then, and eventually falls madly in love with her. So much so that on escaping from the Brotherhood, he first goes to Lara before taking stock of his own family. The story ends with Yuri’s death and a heart rending epilogue thereafter.

While there is no doubt about the genius and depth of the novel and the priceless glimpse it offers in the history of early 20th century Russia, it does have its shortcomings. The first and foremost that struck me was the complexity of names of the characters and the myriad relationships they have with each other. Then there are a lot of coincidences and the same characters keep propping up from time to time in various different settings. Though we can attribute this to artistic freedom, at times it makes the reader realize that it is a fictional account after all, and tends to undermine the credibility of the novel’s epic nature.

With all that said, Dr. Zhivago is unquestionably the greatest historical fiction I have come across till date. Initially this book was not allowed to be published in its native Russia. The content was deemed inappropriate by the Communist party since it presented the alternate and ugly face of the revolution. The manuscript had to be smuggled out of the country and found the light of day in Italy in the year 1957. The powerful narrative, and the fact that such few works of art (or even news) came out from Russia during that time, won Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958. The Russian government prohibited the author from accepting the prize and he was threatened with arrest and torture. Pasternak bowed to this pressure and refused to accept the award. Though this avoided his arrest, but it was not enough to thwart the threat of his expatriation to the West. It is said that the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (himself an author and connoisseur of art) then intervened to save the patriot Pasternak from exile.

This is the only novel Boris Pasternak ever got published in his lifetime. It was only in 1988 that his son was allowed to travel to Sweden and collect the Nobel on his late father’s behalf.

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