The fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the death of Czar Nicholas II and his family in the Bolshevik Revolution, have given Roberto Pazzi a vantage point for his sustained exploration of history and the human soul. For this subtle and poetic Italian novelist, the two are intricately joined. History expresses our conscious and unconscious lives, and shapes them.
Pazzi's history has a pliability of a dream; and both "Searching for the Emperor," published here last year, and his new "The Princess and the Dragon" move on the dreams and illusions of marginal, half-invented historical figures. Beyond dreamer and dream is something that moves both and that we never see. Pazzi is partly a religious writer, and perhaps this explains why he chooses the Romanovs for his fictions.
To his subjects, the czar was the promise that God would be with them. Possessing no extraordinary vision or talents, the Romanovs had to be the narrow and not especially well-made containment vessel for two mighty and unmanageable forces: God and the Russian people.
The dream machine in "Searching for the Emperor" was a White Russian regiment that wandered for years in Siberia, imagining that it was on the way to save an emperor still in power. In the new book, it is Nicholas' brother, George, an invalid prince confined on an estate by the Black Sea. Nicholas, ruling in St. Petersburg, wears the Romanov power, but George wears its divine authority. Divine authority proclaims that the dynasty is ill. In 1899, in the gardens of Livadia, George is prophet and pioneer of that illness. He is there to sleep--the book ends with his final sleep--before the dynasty does; to dream its past and future; and to be the prisoner waiting for death that Nicholas would become 20 years later.
Pazzi, who writes with a delicacy that is sweet and pungent by turns, describes the waking moments of a prince whose sensibility was so fine that Pope Leo XIII declared that he was more fit to be a Pope than a king. Half free, half not--Prince Ourousov, his chamberlain, is a spy for Nicholas--he moves uneasily against the burden of being royal.
Getting dressed--putting on royalty--is agony. In St. Petersburg, Nicholas wears his uniforms as a sign "of everything that was sacred in that immense and savage land." In Livadia, George's narrow wrists tremble against the cuffs of his dressing gown. "To dress for others seemed to him among the most real causes of his disease; he was aware that his waking led to an inevitable, perfectly rehearsed series of actions on the part of a dozen or so people in some wing of the palace."
He plans, futilely, to escape to France where his cousin, Helen, is living. Their love is frowned upon by the czar; Helen is vital, alive, rebellious and free of history. Once, at a time when they were together, Helen watched his restless sleeping and reflected: "My love, what an effort History is for you."
George's dreams of escape have him practice to pack everything he values in a single suitcase. History is not portable, though. His responsibilities as dreamer are too heavy for personal happiness. He moves to another estate in the mountains of Georgia. There, he begins the long series of visions that form the second half of the book.
In company with Ourousov, he becomes a world and time traveler. He visits broken dynasties: Napoleon in St. Helena, Louis XVI at his beheading, the court of a Chinese emperor who has run off to find a fabled valley--it is in Georgia, according to legend--where death cannot find him. He moves forward to 1938 and tries to obtain his death certificate from an agitated Soviet bureaucrat.
The slyly sinister figure of Ourousov swells to monstrous proportions. Someone calls him "the Creature" at one point. At another, an old cardinal recognizes him and recoils. If George is the dreamer of history, Ourousov is perhaps history itself. Visiting the dying Empress Catherine, he informs her that his creatures will eventually rule. In the Georgia mountains, he produces two monstrous shapes and introduces them to George. They are, or will be, Stalin and Brezhnev.
Like "Searching for the Emperor," "The Princess and the Dragon" balances suggestiveness and a breathtaking symbolic grace upon a knife-edge of obscurity. In this case, the obscurity prevails more often, and the essentially static setting--in contrast to the entranced wandering of the Siberian regiment--makes us more aware of it. Here, the wandering tends to be reflection rather than reflection in action. The result can be arid even as it stretches and astonishes us.
Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "The Road to the City" by Natalia Ginzburg.