BOOK REVIEW / This is Russia: The Master of Petersburg - J M Coetzee: Secker, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IT is 1869, and a middle-aged Russian writer has returned to St Petersburg from his home in Dresden, in a turmoil of grief and guilt, after the death of his stepson, Pavel Isaev. For a while, Coetzee rather coyly leaves us half-guessing the identity of this writer (who is travelling on a false passport), and it is only some time after Pavel's landlady has mentioned the story Poor Folk that Coetzee comes clean: his 'master' is Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky's quest - the backbone of this book - is to find the truth about his stepson's 'suicide', and so to find the boy himself again: to investigate and mourn the death, he finds, he must immerse himself in what remains of Pavel's life. The boy he half-abandoned becomes an obsession. He moves in to Pavel's room, partitioned from the quarters of the landlady, Anna Sergeevitch, and her knowing daughter Matryona. He lies on Pavel's bed, dressed in his suit; he becomes Anna's lover (as Pavel had been?); he tracks every detail of his strange existence. Pavel's papers have been seized by the police; among them, he discovers an anarchist group's hit-list. The trail leads into a half-world of conspiracy and revolution, and to the group's persuasive leader, Sergei Nechaev.

As the planned conflagration moves closer, Dostoevsky begins to glimpse truths about Pavel's death, Nechaev's motives and his own part in both: 'as he allows Pavel his first taste of hatred and bloodlust, he feels something stir in himself too: the beginnings of a fury that answers Pavel, answers Nechaev, answers all of them. Fathers and sons: foes: foes to the death.'

By now, Coetzee is intent on plunging us deeper into the timeless business of his book. One by one, the great Dostoevskian philosophical questions come trundling out to do battle on the page: for each of the Master's themes, Coetzee has scored a set of variations which encompass the corruption of the city, children, prostitution, crime, sex and guilt, the suffering of the innocent, the writer's lack of shame, the relentless brutality of Russia. Telling Matryona the story of an idiot girl whose brother beat her, Dostoevsky says: 'She did not hold it against him. Perhaps, in her simplicity, she thought that is what the world is: a place where you get beaten . . . A horse does not understand that it has been born into the world to pull carts. It thinks of a cart as a huge object it is tied to so that it cannot run away while it is being beaten. . . . This is Russia] he wants to say (to Matryona), forcing the words on her, rubbing her face in them . . .'

To give Russia itself a leading part is a telling response on the part of a South African writer for whom this is new fictional territory. The drawback to his Dostoevskian method is too much talk, too many meaningful dialogues and musings. Add to that the veiled, period language he has chosen, language that comes to us almost like a competent translation - sunlight through gauze, never playing directly on our skin - and the result is a book that is more admirable than enjoyable: a powerful intellectual construction, but without the pulsing immediacy of Coetzee's previous work.