The People's Train

This novel is a Bolshevik romp about a Ukrainian follower of Lenin. Exiled to Siberia for anti-tsarist agitation, Artem Samsurov, who has "a lion heart", escapes through the Far East and ends up in Australia with a best friend made along the way. Together, they and others try to further the revolutionary project from their new home in Queensland, but conservative Brisbane is having none of it, and Artem, now known as Tom, ends up doing two years in prison, before making his way back to Russia in 1917, just in time for Red October.

Thomas Keneally tells us, in the kind of afterword to fiction that seems to be obligatory these days, that Artem/Tom is based on a real person who wrote an account of his time in Australia, whereas most of the other characters are wholly imagined. He hopes his readership will be sufficiently enthused for him to write a sequel about what Artem did next.

I have to disagree with my distinguished colleague historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who finds The People's Train "a tremendous read, really exciting". True, it's a page-turner - but I couldn't turn these 400 pages fast enough to get to the end of an entirely predictable story punctuated with set phrases and moral stereotypes: "'All power to the Soviets, would you say?' Tom murmured." And similarly: "I felt the amazement Tasha had felt in Geneva about the ordinariness of Vladmir Ilich's household." The characters' simple moralising ("the brave railwaymen . . . Mensheviks though many of them may have been") and the flat observations plundered from the historical record are often breathtakingly inane. And one mourns the depth of research into Russian revolutionary politics that must have been conducted to support it all.

The People's Train combines a fluency of narrative with woodenness of thought. It is that rare thing: a novel with too much action, and too little attention paid to language and style. Apart from the odd misguided and almost incomprehensible flourish - "Under Vladimir Ilich's spell, she reached her pension. Lenin twinkled in the light of a lamp post" - it is written in the dullest of prose. The author makes no attempt to capture the language of the time, or to differentiate between characters, and is happy to commit a horrible contemporary solecism - "Suvarov and myself", "This is . . . the story of myself". In the course of the story, various baddies and sundry anonymous victims die violent deaths, and Tom doesn't quite win the heroine Hope Mockridge's heart. Frankly, who cares?

It is possible that your reviewer is at bottom a churlish Cadet who would have opposed Lenin. So, if you're still a Bolshevik at heart and wish that history hadn't happened, do give this novel a chance. If you wish historians had not exposed the real, ruthlessly manipulative and murderous Lenin, you may even like The People's Train.

The novel has walk-on parts for just about everyone in the early Soviet firmament, from Trotsky and Stalin to Plekhanov and Zinoviev. Even Kerensky, the Cadet leader who formed the provisional government overthrown by the Bolsheviks, makes an appearance ("The world could see what a tyrant Kerensky was to chase good men [Lenin and Zinoviev] into the wilds of Russia and Finland"). But if you have an ounce of interest in literary art, or indeed any political discrimination appropriate to the 21st century, you needn't begin; it is not as if these views of revolutionary Russia were being ironically framed by a contemporary writer sampling the past.

Reading any text is a kind of detective assignment, and I found myself scouring these pages for the reason Keneally chose this particular subject matter. I arrived at the following hypo­theses. First, that he did so in order to remind an Australian readership what was happening in their country - as far as the workers' movement was concerned - in the run-up to 1917. The author sees the story as one of limited worker protests, attracting sporadic middle-class sympathy (principally from spirited women) as well as a great deal of police brutality, and a let-down on the part of the Australian Socialist Party.

Alternatively, Keneally wants to express sympathy for the Bolshevik project as a vision of what human beings could become: simple, optimistic, decent, the potential violence of their natures safely harnessed to the good cause: "Well, I said, human nature unregulated! It explains all the world's sorrows." But surely that is Keneally speaking, not Artem? The word "unregulated" gives it away. And the proposed regulation of human nature turns the whole novel on its head, for must that not entail putting most of us, and certainly me, in prison, while Bolshevism triumphs outside
in our name? My third hypothesis is that Keneally wanted to write a socialist-realist novel. There, he succeeded.

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of “The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia" (Atlantic Books, £9.99)

The People's Train
Thomas Keneally
Sceptre, 416pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush