This is how civilisations heal

I couldn’t decide whether to get Pachinko or A Gentleman in Moscow at the bookstore today, so I got both. Honestly, such a good problem to have.

I started to read A Gentleman in Moscow the moment I got home, clutching my prized bounty. I’m only on page 49 so far, and it has been delightful. Literary references were scattered everywhere in the pages. I enjoy playing guess of which literary piece this was from, but more so than often I needed help in the form of online search. The setting of the book was during 1922’s Moscow, and it tells of a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov who was sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to a house arrest in an attic atop (non-fictitious, totally real) The Hotel Metropol for writing an allegedly seditious poem. “Let us return our attention to the poem,” the prosecutor said. “Coming as it did — in the more subdued years after the failed revolt of 1905 — many considered it call to action. Would you agree with that assessment?”

The Count answered, “All poetry is a call to action.”

There is an entire section in a chapter of the book where the Count could not wait for an appointment at noon, and while doing so he decided to read some chapters off Montaigne. There was a whole description of how one struggles to focus through a difficult book and time feels so slow especially when we are expecting something in the few hours to come, something all of us could probably relate — but unlike Amor Towles the writer, could put into words:

Until suddenly, the clock strikes twelve, “that long-strided watchman of the minutes caught up with his bowlegged brother at the top of the dial. As the two embraced, the springs within the clock’s casing loosened, the wheels spun, and the miniature hammer fell, setting off the first of those dulcet tones that signaled the arrival of noon.” I somehow know that this is going to be another book I would not stop talking about whenever someone asks (or not).

When the Count mentioned how all poetry is a call to action, it reminds me of this piece by the legendary Toni Morrison. Following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush, Morrison was struck with the feeling of dread. When a friend called, she confided she was feeling depressed to the point of being unable to work or write, when her friend interrupted, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.” She was reminded of how some great works were written in the prison cells, in hospital beds, in gulags, in conditions where one was expected not to work — but they did anyway.

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.”

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