Fathers and Sons Novel Takes `Liberties' with History

Article excerpt

THE MASTER OF PETERSBURG By J.M. Coetzee 250 pages, Viking, $21.95

`THE MASTER of Petersburg," J.M. Coetzee's seventh novel, arrived in St. Louis ahead of its November publication date thanks to Coetzee's participation in "The Writer and Religion" conference, held in late October at Washington University.

Despite his willingness to discuss other other texts at length, the author confided only that "The Master of Petersburg" took three years to write and that he took "liberties" with history.

Opening in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1869, "The Master of Petersburg" offers a bird's-eye view of the famed city from the skewed perspectives of its celebrated, not entirely trustworthy main character, Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, author of "Crime and Punishment."

Like the start of a chess game, the first half of the book methodically defines the players and their starting positions on the board. Dostoyevsky has traveled from Dresden, Germany to St. Petersburg to investigate his stepson Pavel Isaev's death. With each encounter and clue, he inches closer to his stated goal of "seeing" Pavel again. Coetzee's vivid sketches of bleak, impoverished neighborhoods, animated conversations and "the master's" thoughts plumb psychological and spiritual dimensions.

As personal and political events escalate, Dostoyevsky confronts Pavel's supposed friend, Nachaev the dissident. Each tries to disabuse the other of delusions about how Pavel died. They vie for Pavel's soul. At one point, Nachaev accosts his elder, saying, "No! You think you see but you don't! Seeing is not just a matter of the eyes, it is a matter of correct understanding. . .Forces: that is what you are blind to!"

Furthermore, Nachaev points to the "the master's" hatred of his own father, a petty tyrant, adding, "Revolution is the end of everything old, including fathers and sons." Their dialogues recall age-old clashes, such as those between biblical fathers and sons.

Dostoyevsky has an affair with Anna, his stepson's landlady, during his separation from his wife, also named Anna. The two Annas facilitate the author's search for truth. They exemplify Coetzee's use of doubling to compare and contrast. In this case, the women are both intuitive, yet his wife in Dresden is Pavel's age (Pavel's mother had died), and the landlady is closer to "the master's" age. The landlady's daughter, Matryona, a friend of Pavel, is the female equivalent of his son. Dostoyevksy further complicates his relationships by fantasizing about his conflicting impulses to protect Matryona and to initiate her sexually . …