An impressive first novel — published today — that is part coming of age story and part spy story, with a primer on 20th century European history thrown in.
The Breaking of Eggs: A Novel
By Jim Powell
(Penguin, 352 pages, $15 paper)
This impressive first novel is part coming of age story and part spy story, with a primer on 20th century European history thrown in. History at the most personal, small-picture level. It’s also about redemption, second chances, and what home means.
Most readers will identify, though maybe not from the first few pages, with Feliks Zhukovski. He’s the repressed, somewhat unreliable, but still engaging narrator of Breaking who not only comes of age, a bit late at 61, but comes to life as communism dies in Europe. The friendless, never-married, emotionally stunted Feliks has used Marxist ideology to keep life at bay for decades.
As the novel opens Feliks is an example of Political Man at his most arid and abstracted. He is, as some of Al Gore’s own supporters describe him, a man-like creature. Vital parts are missing. Then, as a series of revelations shake up his personal life as much as the communist infarct challenges his political beliefs, we see Felix struggle to, as the modern phrase has it, get a life.
Born in Poland and hustled out of that luckless country just days before the Germans invaded in 1939, Feliks and his older brother ride out the war in Switzerland at the home of a weak and distant aunt and her overbearing German husband. Their mother doesn’t come with them, which Feliks sees as abandonment. During the war the brother leaves this tense foster arrangement for the romance of the French resistance, leaving Feliks a party of one.
Alone after the war, Feliks fetches up in Paris. The bruised and inadequate Feliks, wanting change he can believe in, and something to replace the family that deserted him, joins the French Communist Party. He works at a Peugeot factory and even writes for a time at a communist newspaper financed by the USSR. But there’s little future in red journalism, even for a guy like Feliks who’s officially non-materialistic. So in 1955 he starts a series of travel guides to the countries of Eastern Europe, describing these countries and their charms in a manner consistent with the official Soviet line.
In Soviet days there was never great demand to tour the gloomy fleshpots of Eastern Europe, where the favorite TV program was “Bowling for Food” and the hotel cleaning lady almost certainly reported to the Stasi (or its equivalent in other down-at-heel workers’ paradises). But Feliks’s guides to these destinations were the only ones available, so he made an adequate living for decades from this enterprise and toured Soviet Bloc countries every year to keep his guides up to date. While not traveling he lives a bloodless life in his unadorned Paris apartment and may have done so for the duration had not the Soviet system begun its two-year implosion in 1989. Says Feliks:
I still find the events of that year utterly bewildering. It would be fair to say that my own attachment to communism was already weaker by then. I had ceased to be a party member in 1968. But I remained, in principle, a supporter of what the Soviet system sought to achieve…. It felt like the entire edifice of my life was being torn down in front of me.
But Felix doesn’t stay at this low ebb. An offer to buy his now obsolete travel guides by an American company leads to a trip to the decadent America Feliks has always despised. To get the required visa for the America trip, Feliks makes connection at the American embassy in Paris with a mysterious French official with one of that nation’s spook agencies. From resistance days, this man knows Feliks’ brother, who didn’t abandon Feliks but simply couldn’t find him in the chaos that was Europe just after the war.
In short order Felix reconnects with his brother who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, finds a long letter from his mother, and tracks down the only woman he ever had a romance with, now available in Berlin. All bets are off. Almost nothing is what is has seemed for all these years.
Feliks has always been a man of principle, but he’s organized his principles around a bankrupt ideology that promises all the answers to life’s first questions but doesn’t deliver. And the ideology has been hijacked, as extreme ideologies tend to be, by unprincipled thugs who just use it to exercise power over millions of people like Feliks. The last third of the novel shows Feliks groping for a new basis for his principles, and a way to assemble what’s left of his life. There are no blinding light moments or epiphanies, just gradual understanding, achieved at Feliks’ plodding pace. Just one example:
It was all very well deriding the materialism of American society, but the fact was that most of the people I had met in eastern Europe lived equally materialistic lives, just less successful ones.”
The title of the book comes from the apology for communism, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” Feliks finally sees that what Stalin and his gangster successors were breaking was not eggs but human lives by the millions.
A strength of the novel is that it sheds light on the great themes and tragedies of the 20th century, especially the almost unfathomable horror that was World War II, in a very personal way through the life of one family. Feliks’s mother and brother and girlfriend Ingrid tell stories of their engagement with that war and its long aftermath that can’t fail to move readers.
The novel is wise and witty, but at some points a bit talky. But this is probably unavoidable in a story about a man who organizes his life around politics. Some of the more satisfying passages in the book are from Feliks’s mother’s letter to him, and the conversations he has with Kristin, his only romance from the old days who he’s fortunate enough to reunite with. These two apolitical women (perhaps anti-political covers it better) clearly understand politics and its effects far better than does the hyper-political Feliks, and can express themselves about it economically.
Jim Powell, 61 like Feliks and a citizen of the U.K., came to writing late after careers in advertising and business. He has no political message of his own, unless it’s a warning about all extreme ideologies. He has described himself as a centrist Tory. A “wet,” is the British designation — what you’d get if Olympia Snowe stood for Parliament — which, by the way, Powell did once and lost. He’s working on a second novel.
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