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Martin Booth's latest novel focuses on the forging of the soul through adversity, with mixed results

By Adam Kirsch

NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

The Industry of Souls, by Martin Booth. St. Martin's Press, 250 pages, $22.95.

Novels can thrive on depicting extreme conditions that would break most of their readers (and authors). Daniel Defoe would not have lasted a week on the island where Robinson Crusoe triumphed; but fiction can draw sustenance from deprivation. In a world where things are few, and their functions definite and necessary -- Crusoe's improvised tools, for instance, or the simple campfire meals in Hemingway's fiction -- what little is there becomes exceptionally interesting to the reader. Since the first English novel, telling us how to make do in difficult circumstances has been one of the novelist's greatest accomplishments.

This kind of instruction is what keeps Martin Booth's novel going, sometimes against overwhelming odds. The Industry of Souls, a Booker Prize nominee last year, takes a modern extremity -- the Soviet gulag -- and imagines, in concrete terms, how a man could survive there. This anchoring in fact is all the more necessary for a novel that, whenever it stops to be lyrical or philosophical, shoots up, like an untethered balloon, into oxygen-deprived inanity. There are many dead spots in Booth's story, but when he is telling us how to mine a narrow seam of coal, or how to keep water from freezing in subzero temperatures, or even how to excavate a prehistoric carcass, his novel comes to life. It makes perfect sense that Booth is also a successful author of nonfiction books, most recently Opium: A History.

The novel opens with Shurik, an ex-schoolteacher in a tiny village in post-Soviet Russia, waking to his 80th birthday. But Shurik is no Russian peasant; he is actually Alexander Bayliss, an Englishman who has lived in the town of Myshkino for 20 years, and in a Soviet labor camp for 25 years before that. On a business trip to East Germany in the early 1950s, he was accused (falsely) of spying, kidnapped to the USSR, and put to work mining coal in a camp in the Arctic circle. When he was finally released, a fellow prisoner's request took him to Myshkino, where he remained, unwilling or unable to go back to his old life. The novel alternates between the present day, as Alexander makes a tour of Myshkino and prepares for a momentous decision, and the gulag years, as episodes from his incarceration are brought to life.

It is the gulag episodes that make the novel. The men of Work Unit 8 form a family, led by the handsome, brave Kirill, whose charm, for Alexander, is almost erotic. Their life is frankly idealized -- as Alexander remarks with only some irony, they are "an example of socialism truly working . . . everyone looking out for his fellow and doing his bit." Booth gives us not the daily tedium and humiliations of prison life, but the exceptional adventures: a collapsing mine, a gas explosion, a secret nighttime mission, a run-in with women prisoners. Unrepresentative though they may be, these little tales are satisfyingly imagined, precise, and detailed, and therefore absorbing. There is also a fair amount of humor in the telling, especially when Dmitri, a fellow inmate, regales the group with his endless store of jokes.

Looking forward to these episodes, the reader is willing to struggle through the present-day chapters, which are less successful by far. In the present, Alexander is an improbably saintly figure, whom the villagers can't stop praising: "You broadened horizons . . . the people here admire you"; "You are a truly good man"; "our lives were enriched beyond our wildest dreams." Since Alexander is almost null as a character -- his real function in the novel is to observe and record -- there is something not just hollow but self-infatuated about such praise. The unreality is heightened by the many failures of credibility in Booth's description of a poor Russian village: the peasants quote Horace (in Latin!) and Henry Adams; they always take Alexander's side, in word and deed, against their own government, even though he is a foreigner and a convicted political prisoner; and they are unfailingly great-hearted, if sometimes quaintly gruff. And Booth's prose gives the story no help: it is generally clumsy ("It was a fantasy without hope of fulfillment for there was no chance for it to ever realize itself") or pretentious ("clouds . . . as insubstantial as a young girl's dream of handsome men"), and sometimes gets so tangled up that it simply can't say what it means ("a man whom I envisaged would look perhaps not a little unlike myself").

The title of the novel implies that Booth is after a description of soul-making, the way that harsh conditions refine and test the spirit. Other novels have dealt with that element of gulag life far more convincingly, and from firsthand experience. It is not souls but the details of the physical world that dominate The Industry of Souls, and the romance of that world is just enough to make this an entertaining novel.

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