A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was a book I did not want to read when I saw the length of it. I knew it was about the life of a man who had been confined to the Hotel Metropol for thirty years. Not a compelling synopsis of the book which I anticipated being dry and boring. Lets face how much stuff can you do in thirty years confined to a hotels corridors and facilities? However, from the first page the beautiful writing and well constructed story compelled me to read on, only to experience disappointment that the book had finished – albeit with a marvellous ending.
The tale commences in 1922 when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is tried by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commisariat For Internal Affairs and because of a revolutionary poem he’d written in 1913 that the Bolsheviks admired, he was sentenced, not to life or death in Siberia, but to living the rest of his life in the Metropol Hotel, a grand hotel with ballrooms, cocktail bars, cafes and restaurants. He finds that he can no longer live in the suite he had been occupying and is moved to a small room in the attic.
The story tells of how he maintained his sanity during the thirty years he was imprisoned there. He said “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them” and that “imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.” What he does to master his circumstances I won’t spoil for you by telling you. It makes you realise that exile is preferable in that you can make a new life for yourself in the new place but when you are where your life is but cannot partake is much more of a punishment.
Throughout it all the Count remains a gentleman. Early in the book he befriends Nina, a 9 year old girl who holds the key that opens every room in the hotel and a friendship that has lasting effects springs up between them. There are the hotel staff – some that become friends, others enemies. His friend from university days, Mischka, also drops in periodically to visit. The other two major characters (without giving anything away ) is a former colonel of the Red Army whom the Count tutors for many years in the ways of the west and an actress that he has a long term love affair with.
We are told some history and politics. The characters are drawn expertly and it is written with humour, compassion and much philosophical thought and insight. It shows good winning over evil and hope over despair. It shows resilience, and the maintenance of standards. Count Rostov showed himself to be a gentleman in the true sense of the word.
Would I recommend this book – absolutely I would. It was captivating, compelling and completely satisfying.