The Breaking of Eggs
Penguin: 342 pp., $15 paper
In his debut novel, "The Breaking of Eggs," British writer Jim Powell surveys an impressive breadth of time — and trains his focus on a small slice. The book's historical scope encompasses Poland at the turn of the 20th century and Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1990s. The story is framed, however, by a fraction of that distance, beginning New Year's Day 1991, in a Paris apartment and concluding on Dec. 31 of that same year, in the same apartment. The settings — past and present — come together through Feliks, the novel's grudging hero, who unwittingly explores the perils of ideological alignment.
Initially, the accumulation of decades exists only as a long caesura. Feliks offers an outline of his past — he spent his youth in Lodz, Poland, before his half-Jewish mother shipped the 10-year-old boy and his older brother, Woodrow, to her sister's in Switzerland on Aug. 24, 1939, the day after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and a week before the Nazis marched into Poland. The boys never saw their mother again.
Woodrow chafes in the household of his German uncle, a Nazi sympathizer, and leaves in 1941 to join the French Resistance, promising to come for his brother at war's end. But by 1947, with no sign of his brother, Feliks begins a series of jobs in France as a communist agitator and propagandist. He soon starts writing a modest travel guide to Eastern Europe, a solitary pursuit that gives him easy access to the Soviet bloc and allows him to explain that society "objectively" to others. For seven months of the year, Feliks is absorbed in his professional travels, and he holes up alone in his Paris apartment during the remaining winter months. And so proceeds his life for decades — until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The event bewilders Feliks, and on his subsequent trip to the East, he finds that the collapsing Soviet Union has not only altered the patterns of his annual tour but has cracked the foundation of his beliefs. "I found myself wondering whether more had not changed in a single year than in the 35 previous put together," he grumbles, likening demolished sections of wall to the "entire edifice of my life ... being torn down in front of me." A chance encounter with an old French Resistance fighter named René Dufour propels Feliks into a series of discoveries about the truth of his brother's postwar existence and his mother's abandonment of them and encourages his awakening from a decades-long intellectual stupor.
But Feliks is a tough nut to crack. He criticizes a type of expat American whose "respect for old Europe and its assorted cultural arcana amounted almost to a religious devotion." Yet he is himself a relic by his refusal to concede that what we take as truths change over time; as Joan Didion said of Maria in "Play It As It Lays," "She did not decide to stay … she only failed to leave." Early in the novel, Feliks uses the famous Soviet axiom "You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" as a defense of his continuing faith in the repressive Soviet machine. René rejects this idea. "All of us are inclined to believe that sacrifices are necessary," he counters, "when we do not personally have to make them."
Forcing a longtime partisan to question decades of entrenched belief might have proved a clever way of sussing out the path by which we fall under — and, less easily, out of — ideological sway. "In the 1930s and '40s," Feliks recalls, "men with hatred in their souls were offering the mass delusion of fascism. Men with money in their souls were offering the temptation of mass production and consumption. Men with what I mistook for love in their souls, with what in many cases I mistook for souls at all, were offering the mass hope of communism. It had seemed an easy choice to make … I do not think it occurred to me that perhaps none of the choices was correct." Unfortunately, Feliks' road to enlightenment is slow-going; he remains stubbornly beholden — exhaustingly so — to the belief that Soviet ideology held the right course. He is exasperatingly obtuse, so much so that the other characters serve mainly to lecture him about how his own behavior blinds him to other people's needs and motivations.
Feliks' rationality, though essential to his personality, is nonetheless overstated and frequently rings false. Feliks may be emotionally repressed, but Powell's characterization of him is positively stilted: "It is hard to describe how I felt. I was calm, numbed even. I imagine I was still in a state of shock. Some reason and feeling had returned to me, but it was a different reasoning and another feeling from ones I had known before." Feliks' bland equanimity is matched by the novel's dearth of enlivening description; Powell relies on overt and trite metaphors such as the "wall" behind which Feliks has divided himself off from the world or his "reunification" with his brother. More troubling is that he allows Feliks to do much of the reader's work, leaving little for the reader to discover on her own.
At the core of Feliks' hesitation to plunge into the real world is its lack of certainties and objective truths. The prospect of finding little solid ground in the mire of shifting political ideas, particularly on the scale of the mid-20th century, could make the bravest person reach for the surest-seeming branch. And this is part of Powell's point. It is also his aim to show that our faith in the best of humanity and in our relationships can sustain us — a shame, then, that he could not display the same faith in his own creation.
Rudick is the managing editor of the Paris Review.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times