As a boy on Taschla Collective Farm, Ivan Khuchevsky knows strange luminous moments when he seems able to perform supernatural feats. Some, like breaking solid furniture, leave concrete evidence. Others, like creating a kindly nurse or a city called Ruibinsk in the middle of the cornfields, are, to say the least, more equivocal. In any event, Ivan knows he has a secret destiny. There is a legacy of buried icons waiting for him, and meanwhile a training of iron discipline at the brutal hands of the overseer Boris. Unfortunately Boris, who is to tell all on Ivan's 18th birthday, dies two months too soon, in a skating accident for which Ivan believes himself magically responsible.
To find his destiny, Ivan runs away, not once, but again and again, his whole life long. From Taschla he escapes to Ruibinsk, from Ruibinsk to the army, from the army to the West, where he is welcomed into Cambridge. Reuters sends him to Paris; he resigns to run a second-hand bookshop in London. He sets up old people's homes, then advertising agencies. He leads safaris of elderly Americans into the Serengeti, where arm-wrestling skills learned from Boris accidentally win him the chiefdom of a minor tribe. He immediately abdicates to join a think-tank in Chicago. Somewhere along his tortuous way, it becomes apparent that what he is really doing is looking for Sofka, the girl who, while hiding him from the Ruibinsk police, relieved him of his virginity.
Though Michael Wordingham is another orphan, his story is in strict contrast. Overwhelmed by a doting grandmother and her Polish housekeeper, a lonely refugee called Elfreda, Michael never does anything except become obese. There is one magnificent portrait: "Michael at nearly 20 was tall, oval in shape and already losing his hair in front, either because he had pulled it all out or for hereditary reasons. He somewhat resembled a new-laid egg or much sucked bonbon. His habit of running his nails down his plump left cheek continued, and now he often ate the little rolled-up fragments from under them. He liked the salty taste."
Anal-compulsive to the letter, Michael spends his life collecting newspapers, paperbacks, bus tickets, the cardboard middles of toilet rolls. Floor by floor, he forces his granny to evict her tenants from a house in Drayton Gardens, and uses the increased space to accommodate things he finds in skips: bits of string and bottle tops; towel rails and broken hotplates. He collects his own hair; his own excretions. He catalogues his collections and records the cataloguing in his journals. Then he catalogues the journals.
This is an authentically masculine book. Ivan, the arm-wrestler, the good soldier, the dynamic executive, never runs away from anything in defeat, but always at the peak of success. Michael represents the gloomier side of the gender: self-centred, helplessly dependent, manipulative. Each man is obsessed with the woman whose fortune it will be to sanctify his life, should he ever find her. While Ivan dreams of Sofka, Michael yearns for Elfreda, and searches for her with his own mad methodicality, posting two thousand Roneoed copies of a love letter into the letterboxes of Cambridge.There is never any hope, really, for Ivan or Michael, or for us the readers. What turns out to connect the middle-class British boy and the Russian peasant is that both have given their hearts already, irredeemably.
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy is the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, and he has put at least eight examples of the genus in these pages. When at the end Ivan and Michael disappear from view, we know perfectly well where they have gone: back to the nursery, like all good boys.