The People's Train, By Thomas Keneally

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The Independent Culture

Thomas Keneally's 26th novel shares the military fascination of his recent works while reaching as far back as his 1982 Booker Prize-winning Schindler's Ark for comparable historical weight. The People's Train is set in Australia and Russia in the years leading up to the 1917 October Revolution. The dramatic life of its hero, Lenin's protégé Artem Samsurov, is modelled on a historical figure who fled Tsarist Russia but returned to serve on the Bolsheviks' Central Committee.

Artem arrives in Brisbane in 1911 to find not the expected workers' paradise but racial and political prejudice, socialist ferment and capitalist tyranny. While labouring in the meatworks he dashes off pamphlets and co-ordinates strikes. His conflicted infatuation with Hope Mockridge, a beautiful lawyer who scandalises her class by defending the workers, leads to Artem confessing his own history. A "literate Gorki-style peasant" from "the grimy locomotive shops of Kharkov", he was imprisoned for leading a 1905 strike that was repressed by Cossack artillery with massive bloodshed. After two years in prison he escaped, aided by sympathisers, walking east to Vladivostok before stowing away for Japan, Shanghai and Brisbane.

Artem's memoir, "My Exile and Wanderings", is Part One of this solid book but, beyond the picaresque excitement of his flight, Keneally seems to be keeping the pace slow. Flares of activity feel stifled by discussions that stall progress, which artfully mimics the frustrations of these ardent revolutionaries-in-waiting. In 1917, a suffragette's legacy allows Artem (accompanied by Paddy Dykes, an Australian miner turned radical journalist) to return to a Russia exploding with social upheaval – with the Tsar having abdicated and Lenin on the run from desperate anti-Bolshevik authorities.

Part Two is Paddy's "Russian Journal", which rattles off at the pace of war dispatches. The template of history provides for gripping narrative, from Lenin's return up to the overthrow of the Winter Palace, allowing Keneally to concentrate on his characters. Artem's feisty big sister directs food distributions (and seduces Paddy almost by afterthought). There are cameos from a wild-haired Trotsky and an uncouth young Stalin, while weapons are procured by the suave, slippery Slatkin, whose activism ranges from revolutionary bank robbery to securing Party funds by marrying a sympathetic heiress.

Paddy's impassioned commentary conveys the sleepless, hallucinatory quality of factional meetings and entrenched rivalries. His dispatches slide between reportage and adventure, his child-like grasp of Russian adding a removed sense of wonder. Paddy's testimony, as that of a staunch disciple, is somewhat monochrome compared to the more complex ambiguities of Keneally's recent novels, which all more explicitly revile the waste of war.

The Widow and Her Hero examined moral courage in battle, while The Office of Innocence tested spiritual leadership in wartime. The Tyrant's Novel recorded the slide from integrity to complicity with an oppressive regime, whereas Bettany's Book tackled ideas of democracy under siege. "We can have a revolution," Artem assures Paddy, "but it will take time to overthrow the squalor of the human soul."

Good news: Keneally hints at a sequel to this impressive odyssey, taking Artem through the horrors of the civil war. That might allow more space for examining the anguished ethics of the revolutionary project, sidelined here by the bold sweep of history.