A Russian aristocrat, the charming, cultured and elegant Count Alexandr Ilyich Rostov, is condemned in 1922 by a revolutionary committee, which does not know what to do with him, not to march to the Gulag, but to a perpetual house arrest – to leave He will immediately execute – in a luxurious Moscow hotel, which is where he resides. There, entrenched as a living and quite uncomfortable relic of a vanished era of double-headed eagles, duels, dances and samovars, you will observe the passage of time, the crumbling of your world and the changes in customs, no less stupefied and out of place than the Yuri Zhivago of Pasternak, but also with a naivety full of wit worthy of the Mister Chance of Kosinski. That is the singular starting point of one of the most endearing, sympathetic and surprising novels of recent times, A gentleman in Moscow (Salamandra), by the American author Love Towles (Boston, 1964).
In the story, which will become serial with Kenneth Branagh as protagonist, we follow the life of the count since he leaves escorted by the door of the Kremlin and is confined in the hotel, the Metropol, a classic of the city, passing from his suite room to an attic, until 1954, when, after many vicissitudes, two KGB agents come to look for him. During all that time, Rostov tries to adapt to his new situation and survive, but at the same time without losing a bit of his phlegm, his (exquisite) education, his manners and principles. Meanwhile, the events take place in the country, be they the Five-Year Plan, the fall of Bukharin, the rise of Stalin or the homicidal famine of Ukraine, at a dizzying pace. With Robinson Crusoe as model, the count decides to confront his situation by concentrating on practical matters, but without neglecting to reread Montaigne and his favorite passages of Pushkin, and trying to eat as best as possible. One understands the difficulties of the Bolsheviks to deal with a guy to whom the execution of the Tsar caught him in Paris, but who returned, not to enlist with the Whites, but to rescue his grandmother and who carried all three bags of clothes , the toothbrush, your copy of Anna Karenina and a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape, let's go "the essential".
Where has Towles got a similar character and history? Were there cases similar to that of Count Rostov in Russia? "During the two decades I was in the investment business, I traveled a lot, and every year I spent weeks in hotels in distant cities to meet with clients," explains the author, who presented his novel in Barcelona. "In 2009, when I arrived at my hotel in Geneva, for the eighth consecutive year, I recognized some of the people who were in the lobby of the previous year. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs, in my room, I started playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is trapped in a big hotel. Thinking that I should be there more by force than by my own choice, my imagination immediately jumped to Russia, where house arrest has existed since the time of the tsars. In the following days, I outlined most of the key facts of A gentleman in Moscow; Throughout the following years I built a detailed scenario and then, in 2013, I retired from my daily work and started writing the book. Regarding the second question, I do not know of any case in which an aristocrat was sentenced to house arrest in a hotel. That said, many of the members of the Russian nobility remained in the country after the revolution living in humble existences, often in constrained circumstances. "
Towles adds that other imaginative punishments such as the "Minus Six" mentioned in the novel existed. "It meant that you could live as a free citizen in Russia as long as you did not live in one of the six major cities in the country. We must remember that Pushkin, near the end of his life, was forced to live in an apartment near the Winter Palace so that the Tsar could have him under surveillance. "
As for the character of Count Rostov, that man who knows things like that in a duel, the number of steps between the offender and the victim must be inversely proportional to the magnitude of the insult, the novelist emphasizes that it is an invention. "However, it is to some degree an idealized form of a certain type of nineteenth-century aristocrat. At that time, members of European aristocracies tended to have more in common among themselves than with their own countrymen. They had educations, forms of etiquette and interchangeable values. In the pages of Tolstoy, we see Austrians, Poles and French high-born gliding together through the dance halls of St. Petersburg. Although my protagonist, Count Alexandr Iiich Rostov is an invention, with his own talents, faults and idiosyncrasies, he is also representative of that European class of aristocrats. Having been born in Russia in 1890, however, he must be witness to how his world is simultaneously swept by the proletarian revolution and the advances of the twentieth century. Years ago, I bought a nineteenth-century portrait of an unknown character in Paris. Since then that painting has been hanging on the wall of my office. So I guess the count is based a bit on him … "
The novel, in a magnificent translation by Gemma Rovira, is written with a mixture of nostalgia, tenderness (to highlight the delicious encounter between the count and a girl who teaches her how to be a princess) and irony, which seem to be the fruit of character of the character. "My attempt in the first half of the book was to sound a bit like a nineteenth-century novel, consistent with the earl's education and his state of mind. But I wanted the novel to evolve over time and with the count and so ends up sounding like a spy novel of the fifties. "
As for the echoes of Zhivago … "I'm just a specialist in Russian. I do not speak the language, I did not study history in school and I have only been a few times in the country. But as a young man I fell in love with the Russian writers of the golden age: Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. Later, I discovered the wild, inventive and self-confident styles of the avant-garde of the early twentieth century, including the poet Mayakovsky, the dancer Nijinski, the painter Malévich and the filmmaker Eisenstein. Through his works, it seems that every great Russian artist had his own manifesto. From there, I developed an interest in the Soviet era, reading Bulgakov, Solzhenistyn, Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Pasternak. The more I delved into the psychology and idiosyncrasy of the country, the more fascinated I was. "
In A gentleman in Moscow sensational stories appear, like that of the red Cossack squadron that picks up the bells of a monastery (and throws from the top of the belfry the abbot to protest) to make cannons, which makes him reflect on the fact that the bells had they were built with El Hierro of the pieces of the French artillery snatched from Napoleon, which in turn had been forged with that of the bells of La Rochelle … "The anecdote is invented, although certainly such things happened. My interest in writing about the first part of the 20th century does not come from a love of history or a nostalgia for a time gone by. What attracted me is that there is a closeness to the present. It is close enough to seem familiar to many readers, but far enough away so that they do not have first-hand knowledge of what actually happened. That gives me the freedom to explore the boundary between the incredible real and the convincing imagined. I like to mix pieces of history with flights of fantasy, until the reader does not know for sure what is true and what is not. "