Ground control, post-perestroika, have not only written off Major Tomski, they are embarrassed about him. He is not too enamoured of them. Mir IV has a military purpose and will explode if tampered with, which makes calling CJ from Baywatch out of the question. So as he skims the atmosphere with a stowaway spider, sampling a radio station here, zooming in on a missile silo there, the paradigm of our 10-minute-attention-span world, he reflects on his life and on Russia in this entrancing novel, Booth's ninth, which I found hard to put down.
Anyone who has ever been a guest on Aeroflot's flying Gulag will delight in the way Booth ironically underscores the Russian ability to create technological miracles and then keep pigs in them. Khrushchev sneered when his own politbureau chiefs felt the edge of the fins of the first Sputnik rockets for sharpness, as they might a hoe. But in Booth's Mir IV there are no strings of peppers and mushrooms drying across computer consoles or squirrel skins nailed to the hatch. The description of spacelife is painstakingly researched and very realistic. "The meat invariably had a salty flavour and a slightly rubbery, striated texture. Petrenko, the commander of my first mission, said it was like eating shredded condoms."
The taste and smell of modern, ground-level Russia come through the memories of deer-hunting, ice-fishing and drinking iced vodka at the dacha of Pyotr and his wife, Anna, parents of one of the cosmonaut's Afghan buddies who died in his arms after bailing out over enemy territory.
One night he and Pyotr surprise an old bear with torn ears digging in the vegetable patch for frozen potatoes. As Pyotr's gun is levelled the bear fatalistically can't be bothered to run away. "Thinking back now, I realise how much like Russia the bear was, getting along the best he could against the odds, picking up scraps and pretending it was a banquet fit for a tsar or a commissar. Digging in the snow, he was waiting with an infinite patience for a summer he felt had to come one day."
The details of sleeper-train prostitutes and drug dealers are just as compelling. Booth understands that Russian sentimentality is only the other side of the rouble from cruelty. Our sensitive hero, able to grieve for his friends and savour a sunset turning the fir trees golden, shoots a boy prisoner in Afghanistan. "Just for those few moments, I was a god..." What slightly spoils the dramatic impact of that scene is his enormous erection: "my cock was as hard as a broom handle." I cannot imagine this ever happening to our own Biggleses, although it might explain why everyone walks so stiffly in Eisenstein films.
But Booth establishes his character in the reader's imagination so well the odd lapski is permitted. The cosmonaut realises that while not a god at least he is free, which is what the phrase "ocean of mercy" signifies. A girlfriend, Shura, likes to walk naked through the standing wheat; she says that after love-making the wheat is an ocean of mercy. "I never understood exactly what she meant until now as I realise, spinning through space with my future laid out like a Persian carpet before me..."
The spaceman contemplates his end with dignity. He can measure his lifespan in the amount of food left. The waste-disposal system is packing up and the cosmonaut makes a last choice it would be churlish to reveal. Martin Booth has moulded an excellent idea into a wonderful novel which celebrates the Russian soul and serves as an uncomfortable metaphor for the solitary writer. Definitely a novel to divert you if lost in space.