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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Master of Fiction Brought to Life

J.M. Coetzee's atmospheric novel "The Master of Petersburg" may read like Dostoevsky, but it is no mere reworking of the great Russian author's fiction. It simply casts him in the starring role.

By subtly weaving in precise and realistic details, Coetzee has created a plausible imaginary episode from the Russian author's life. It centers around the death of Dostoevsky's real-life stepson, Pavel Alexandrovich Isaev. On a false passport bearing the name Isaev, Dostoevsky journeys to Petersburg from Dresden to retrieve Pavel's possessions. It would seem that Pavel has committed suicide by leaping from the top of a tall tower.

Upon arriving in Petersburg, Dostoevsky heads straight for Pavel's lodgings and promptly becomes intimately involved in the lives of Pavel's landlady, a widow named Anna Sergeyevna, and her daughter Matryona. The plot grows more intriguing when Dostoevsky visits the police station to retrieve Pavel's confiscated property and discovers that a list of assassination targets was also found. Pavel was a revolutionary.

An anarchist named Sergei Nechaev, aware of Dostoevsky's real identity and intent on getting the great author to lend his moral authority to the revolutionary cause, makes contact with him, but is repulsed. But Dostoevsky is also being watched by the police.

None of this dangerous, clandestine activity troubles Dostoevsky half as much as his own conscience. The author failed to make peace with his son before he died, and most of the novel concerns itself with his quest to come to terms with his son's death, be it suicidal or accidental.

Coetzee follows Dostoevsky's lead in making women saints or whores, or both, as in the case of Anna Sergeyevna, Pavel's landlady. Anna plays a central role, for she becomes the closest thing to a savior that Dostoevsky can find.

While Anna can only provide a partial sense of spiritual redemption to the guilt-ridden author, she offers physical comfort in the form of sexual union. In this, she insists that she is thinking only of Dostoevsky's needs, but, in truth, she too is searching for affection.

There are parallels between Dostoevsky's sense of alienation from Pavel and Anna's from her own daughter. For Pavel and Matryona were close, and their relationship, burdened as it was with the secrets of Pavel's revolutionary activity, drove a wedge between mother and daughter.

J.M. Coetzee has, during the course of his 20-year career, established himself as one of South Africa's leading novelists. During the dark years of apartheid, he was viewed as a moral beacon, returning consistently in his prose to the dilemma of the individual living in a society that he did not like, but could not change. It is significant that with the arrival of the new South Africa, Coetzee has looked abroad for his setting, although he has remained faithful to his great theme of the conscience of the individual.

In writing this book, Coetzee obviously did considerable research to tell this story with such detail, but it still seems somewhat superficial. To someone who has read a few of Dostoevsky's novels, Coetzee captures very well the angst-ridden style of Dostoevsky's writing. But for someone well-versed in Dostoevsky's life, the book may prove to be a disappointment.

Coetzee's own insight adds a great deal. For example, when Nechaev confronts Dostoevsky and asks him to write a statement declaring that the tsarist police killed Pavel, Dostoevsky writes a statement saying exactly the opposite.

"The Master of Petersburg" is written in an impressionistic style and in Coetzee's characteristically sparse and laconic prose. The plot of the novel is driven by the internal emotions and intellectual reasoning of the characters rather than by action. The narrative develops as one mood gives way to another. References are made to events in the city, such as student riots or burning buildings, but these incidents are never put in context or even explained, and the effect is disjointed and alienating. Also, the novel fails to keep the reader involved with the characters in general and Dostoevsky in particular. Perhaps if it were written in the first person, this angst-ridden novel would evoke more empathy with the central figure's spiritual plight.

The result is that the novel falls flat. After spending 240 pages reliving agonizingly personal details in an attempt to make sense of, and peace with, a dead son whom he perhaps never understood, Dostoevsky does something that would have alienated Pavel even more. He rewrites some stories that Pavel left behind and fictionalizes parts of his life. But it is in the very act of writing that Dostoevsky realizes that his son will never be restored to him. He has betrayed Pavel by his failure to be who Pavel wanted him to be. Everything that the great writer has worked to achieve -- his fame, his integrity and his reputation as a moral authority -- have come to nothing. As this realization dawns on him, Dostoevsky also recognizes, with brutal clarity, that he has lost his soul.

"The Master of Petersburg" by J.M. Coetzee, Secker & Warburg, 250 pages, ?14.99