Magazine article The Spectator

On the Road with George

Magazine article The Spectator

On the Road with George

Article excerpt

GADFLY IN RUSSIA by Alan Sillitoe JR Books, £16.99, pp. 242, ISBN 9781906217129 £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Stories abound of figures for whom the allure of the Left is eroded by cynicism and honest self-interest.

Most treat their previous affiliation as a species of deluded immaturity; going Right is a natural consequence of growing up, albeit in early middle age. Alan Sillitoe is different. He too in the early Sixties was a radical leftist but his views changed incrementally and, most significantly, as the result of his private ordinance that opinions must be based on personal experience.

His first visit to the Soviet Union is documented in Road to Volgograd (1964), and in his latest book he tells of trips he made at the end of the Sixties and his involvement in the defection, in London, of the Soviet writer Anatoly Kuznetsov. Sillitoe had become the prize of the Soviet intelligentsia, a novelist who was promoted, debated, taught in universities, as the only genuine spokesman for the oppressed working classes of the West. His sales, in translation, had turned him into a rouble millionaire. Such irony.

So Gadfly in Russia is fascinating. Much of it involves a 1967 grand tour in his Peugeot estate accompanied by his Writers Union minder George Anjaparidze. Their journey -- by parts touching, hilarious, compulsive, hair-raising -- makes On the Road seem tame.

Sillitoe is an unostentatious stylist and all the better for that; he blends candour with quiet elegance. In Moscow he looks out of his hotel window and finds himself staring into the face of a young woman who sits casually, cigarette in hand, on the pitched roof of the adjoining building, the gleaming domes of the Kremlin framing her image. She is dressed in overalls, her brightly coloured headscarf has slipped down to her neck and she smiles. She is replacing tiles and she dances around her domain like a bird, joyously alert to what seems a special brand of freedom. It is a beautiful moment but it is buttressed by a fantasy, one that dissolves as he continues his journey.

The most moving strand of the tale unfolds very gradually: Sillitoe's hesitant but eventually enduring friendship with George. George's father had died in the early months of the war and on the anniversary of the Nazi invasion he and Sillitoe find themselves following a convoy of highly tuned German sports cars taking part in the Berlin to Moscow rally. …

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