Books: A frustrated do-gooder adrift in Moscow

Your Father by Jonathan Myerson Review pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Myerson's second novel, like his first, Noise, is the story of an escape. Duncan Fisk is a government minister. His party is never named, but from the way he refers to being "on message" we can make a pretty good guess which party it is: one senses quite a dose of New Labour in Duncan. He is a well-to-do, middle-class liberal of the dyed- in-the-wool persuasion, who went into politics with a desire to do some good in the world and thinks that being a minister should give him the opportunity to fulfil that ambition. "We're not here long, Dunc, we've got to do what we can," his father used to tell him - and his father, a lawyer who liked to specialise in difficult cases and rather helpless clients, is the pole from which Duncan chiefly takes his bearings.

However, at the point at which the narrative begins, a number of things have happened to knock him off course. His schizophrenic elder brother committed suicide a few years earlier (and, as we gradually learn, Duncan feels that he may bear some moral responsibility for Mike's death). His father is in hospital, paralysed by a stroke, but able to direct Duncan to the papers in his safe that will uncover disturbing truths about his private life; these are revealed to us in the course of the novel. Worst of all, Duncan finds that ministerial office does not carry with it the power to do good. He is expected merely to tour factories and make polite noises. When the service lift in one of the factories breaks and sends the minister and his group crashing into the basement, we read it as also a metaphor for the collapse of Duncan's well-ordered world.

In short, Duncan is suffering from feelings of impotence and, to his dismay, he now finds that this is no mere figure of speech. He has never had that problem before (a number of erotic flashbacks prove it), so his wife, Gina, decides that he doesn't love her any longer, and leaves, taking their adored son. Duncan can only protest that his failure in bed is nothing to do with her; and sets off with a trade delegation to Moscow.

It was an inspiration to dispatch this frustrated do-gooder eastwards; nowhere better than the former Soviet bloc to turn a Western liberal mind to thoughts of charitable acts. Such needless mess! Such evident potential! And, of course, such lovely women! In Duncan's first-person narrative, Myerson gently uncovers all the unwitting condescension and self-serving that lies behind the impulse to put the place right. In this case, the means are to be provided by Natalya, a research scientist whose laboratory is liable to be closed down if the deal which Duncan has come to negotiate goes through. Since her research concerns a treatment for schizophrenia, one can see why she serves both to intensify the sense that his own life up to now has been pointless, while apparently offering him a solution to at least one of his problems.

Myerson handles the various strands of the narrative well, leading them towards what I read as a rather cynical conclusion: like father, like son. He is sometimes shaky on the Russian details: for example, schizophrenia is shizofreniya (with the stress on the "i'), not chiz-frenya; and you do not put a samovar on the stove to boil - it's more of a tea urn than a kettle. Most surprising of all is the ease with which Duncan, on his return journey to Moscow, seems to get past visa and other formalities; the old bureaucracy is one thing that the New Russia has not swept away. But his analysis of the English liberal mentality is accurate and he knows by what subtle means its burdens of guilt and self-doubt can pass from one generation to the next.