The Mammoth Communist octopus is currently spreading its tentacles across all sectors of Hong Kong society. The octopus is quietly choking the life out of the robust democratic and legal traditions enjoyed by the majority of Hong Kong citizens. The Free World can only look on in horror as the dramatic destruction of free speech plays out before its eyes.
In this context of communist China’s oppression of Hong Kong, Amor Towles novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is a refreshing reminder of the possibility of human survival and creativity under a totalitarian communist regime.
On 21 June 1942, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Moscow Hotel Metropol. He is assigned a tiny room in the attic. The novel wonderfully captures the mentality of the eccentric aristocrat who has enjoyed personal if unequal relationships with his “inferiors”. He knows his barber, the waiter who serves the food, the chef who cooks it and the seamstress who repairs his clothes. These relationship enable the Count to adapt to his new role as Chief Waiter in the Boyarsky dining room.
The surprise encounter with the precocious nine year old Nina Kulokiva, a fellow long-term hotel resident, allows the Count to form an usual and life-long friendship with his young protégée whom he feels obliged to educate according to the “old standards” of human decency and civility.
We meet a host of other interesting characters working in the Hotel. However the oppressive Communist menace of the Gulag is never far away and the Count finds many ways to diminish its oppressive power over his life and that of Nina. The encounter with the beautiful model Anna Urbonova shifts from romantic liaison into another permanent friendship.
The passing references to the “First Five-Year Plan”and the second “Five-Year Plan” indicate the extent of the tragedy that Russia is traversing while the Count endures his permanent “exile”.
Once the Count realizes that he has lost Nina to the Communist enterprise he climbs up onto the parapet of the hotel to commit suicide. Here occurs one of the most moving scenes in the novel. He is interrupted by Abram, the old handy-man from his former estate who happens to live in a shack on the hotel roof. Abram is excited to tell the Count that the “bees have returned”. Years before, the bees disappeared from the roof under which Abram and the Count spent many evenings reminiscing. So the Count has to see their new hives and taste the fresh honey.
“Dutifully, the Count put the spoon in his mouth. In an instant there was the familiar sweetness of fresh honey – sunlit, golden and gay. Given the time of year, the Count was expecting this first impression to be followed by a hint of lilacs from the Alexander Gardens or cherry blossoms from the Garden Ring. But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely. Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.
Abram was nodding his head. “Nizhny Novgorod”, he said. And it was. Unmistakably so. “All these years, they must have listening to us”, Abram added in a whisper. The Count and the handyman both looked toward the roof’s edge where the bees, having traveled over a hundred miles and applied themselves in willing industry, now wheeled above their hives as pinpoints of blackness, like the inverse of stars”. True human communion includes communion with nature.
So when Nina rushes off to Siberia to look for her husband who has been sent to the Gulag, she asks the Count to take care of her daughter Sofia until she returns. Of course, she never does. The Count begins his second journey as educational mentor which will last for the next twenty plus years until the decisive moment when the Count realizes he can help Sofia escape to the West. He has maintained his capacity to act.
The scene on the roof with Abram reminded me of a scene in the film “Gone with the Wind”. The South is disintegrating and Scarlett O’Hara is running down the street of a chaotic town while a black confederate militia is marching up the street in the opposite direction. Suddenly, in a moment of mutual recognition, Scarlett joyfully recognizes the black slave foreman, Big Sam from Tara. The two huddle in a brief happy conversation. The rest of the world just passes them by. This gigantic, good-natured man says something like “No need to worry none, Miss Scarlett, we’re gonna stop them Yankees”.
In other words, there is always a truth beyond the grasp of a philosophical analysis of the Master-Slave relationship, which will never be subject to Marxist interpretation by dialectical materialism. Suddenly for brief moments, there emerges the truth of a common shared humanity in the creation and preservation of a human community whose essence is not determined by the specific rules, structures and laws apparently governing it. This is perhaps why the only person in the whole world with whom Abram can share his joy about the return of the bees is his former master, the Count Rostov, who sits attentively on a piece of wood beside him listening to the wonder of their common story.