Reviewed by Jack Messenger
by Tom Maremaa
Black Tea Press
ISBN 9781728628288, Oct 2018
Reykjavík is a novel of the Cold War and its aftermath which takes as its starting point the Reykjavík summit in October 1986 between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Dylan Rose, aged 24, is the foreign correspondent for a New York paper. While in Iceland to cover the summit, he unexpectedly encounters Professor Nathalie Campbell, his former teacher of Russian at Berkeley, who herself meets and falls in love with Russian scientist Andrei Heilemann. Over subsequent decades, their lives criss-cross against the backdrop of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the rise of oligarch mobsterism in the new Russia. Andrei’s brother Mikhail is one such oligarch, and his personal/political vendetta with Andrei leads to espionage, danger, persecution and murder.
‘All roads in life converge, one way or another, whether we want them to or not.’ I suspect this highly qualified and unconvincing assertion probably doesn’t mean very much. And, sooner or later, an avid reader is likely to come across an entire book that is just as unconvincing. For me, I am afraid, Reykjavík is one such novel. The reasons are simple, but they are intertwined in complicated ways.
The main problem with Reykjavík is that its relationships quickly strain credulity to breaking point. Dylan infrequently encounters Nathalie and Andrei (and, later, their two children) over the years and, charitably interpreted, provides them with valuable help. Yet the strength of these ties is quite unbelievable. ‘She talks about you often, like, maybe a couple times a week,’ Nathalie’s teenage daughter tells Dylan, while Dylan tells us that he regards them all as his second family. These assertions, however, come out of the blue, and the evidence for them is in short supply. One wonders what Nathalie finds to say about Dylan two times a week and why they do not fade from each other’s consciousness. Certainly, their tenuous connections provide little justification for the emotions alleged to be in play, most of which are profoundly underdetermined. Astonishingly frank confessions between characters who otherwise seem hardly to know one another do not help tether things to reality.
Some of the stylistic choices in Reykjavík exacerbate this problem. The absence of quotation marks and even line breaks to indicate speech has a distancing effect, as if people are speaking to one another (and to the reader) through a dense fog. It is also frequently confusing, especially as lengthy monologues are often nested one inside the other, as when, for example, Dylan narrates what Nathalie quotes from Andrei.
I share the scepticism of Dylan’s editor when Dylan claims:
My journalistic wheels, the ones in my head, were spinning rapidly: there was definitely a story in there about the meeting of East and West, against the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the transition and monster changes that had occurred in the lives of the new couple, with their young son and daughter.
‘Who really wants to know? Where’s the drama … What’s the news hook? The angle? These were some of his [editor’s] immediate responses.’ And mine. Late in the novel, as reports pile up (e.g. ‘And then my father died’; ‘your wife has filed for divorce’), drama goes out the window.
As does historical accuracy, especially when it comes to Ronald Reagan, who was a complicated man, capable of callous disregard for people in his politics yet sensitively protective of bit-players in his acting career. Reagan is described as an ‘amazingly popular president’, a persistent myth that does not bear scrutiny. True, for a two-year period around his reelection the president was popular, but for the rest of his tenure – marred by the disgraceful Iran–Contra scandal, among other things – his approval ratings were often amazingly low and certainly no better than anyone else’s.
Reykjavík does mention (Governor) Reagan’s ‘order [for] the pepper-spraying of protesters from military helicopters in 1969,’ but otherwise gives Reagan all the credit for the end of the Cold War. History tells us that Gorbachev undoubtedly had something to do with it, but he is reduced to little more than a desperate emissary who stands in Reagan’s shadow. Important figures and movements from the previous couple of decades that enormously contributed to the end of the Cold War are simply elided. ‘All this momentous change in the air, following Reagan’s challenge to “tear down this wall”’ actually preceded the challenge and was instigated by Gorbachev. And Reykjavík ups the ante: ‘This was, after all, the height of the Cold War.’ Well, actually, no, the Cold War was easing; its cold rage was at its height when the Berlin Wall was constructed, increased in the subsequent airlift, continued through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and lingered in the proxy wars waged by the Superpowers around the globe.
The Reykjavík summit is described by Dylan as ‘the biggest chess match of the century, the one where the fate of mankind, humankind, if you will, is being decided.’ In light of the twentieth century’s remarkable history, this is a startling conclusion to draw about a summit; in general, summits themselves are seldom as momentous as they might seem at the time.
What Reykjavík does get absolutely right is the Russian regime’s century-long predilection for poisoning its critics, dissidents and traitors. Arkadi Vaksberg’s meticulous history The Poison Laboratory: From Lenin to Putin (Gallimard) details the state’s expertise at home and abroad in silencing its enemies, all the way from Lenin’s order in 1921 to create a poison laboratory. They’re still at it in 2018, in Salisbury, UK, for example. Reykjavík uses thallium-polonium 210 for its assassination, but many others were developed and used.
Politics aside, Reykjavík includes some interesting intertextual episodes. A dream of a duel is nuanced with quotations describing Pierre Bezukhov’s encounter with Dolokhov in War and Peace. And April, we are told in an aside, is ‘the cruelest month,’ a quotation from Eliot’s The Wasteland. There are other such interventions (Nabokov especially), but those quoting the lyrics of David Bowie simply don’t have the intellectual or emotional heft to contribute much. The influence of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is largely formal: the novels share the same intermittent encounters with a narrator in various locations, as well as an episode of mental breakdown.
There are many unfortunate proofreading errors in Reykjavík. The president travels on ‘Air Force On,’ for example, and the egregious ‘I felt badly for her’ – impossible to get wrong if you have ever watched teacher George (Kirk Douglas) explain it in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), a film that really can claim to show how ‘all roads in life converge, one way or another, whether we want them to or not.’
About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a writer and reviewer based in Nottingham, UK. Find out more about him at jackmessengerwriter.com