Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Warren Adler Takes Readers on Thrilling Ride of the Trans-Siberian Express!


An early spring sun, all light and no warmth, was slipping behind the gargoyled, columned mass of the Yaroslav station as a black Zil pulled smoothly up to the main entrance. The policeman posted there stiffened as he noticed the large, official-looking car. The driver and his companion in the front seat, both small-eyed, high-cheekboned Slavs, got out and talked briefly with the policeman. Then they returned, pulled several pieces of baggage from the car’s trunk and swiftly strode inside the station. Immediately, a second car, a Chaika, pulled up. Five tall, dark-suited, somber men emerged and fanned out. Two positioned themselves on either side of the entrance, conspicuously alert, while the others walked through the station entrance and disappeared into the converging crowd of people. 
Inside the Zil, Alex Cousins glanced at his watch. It was four fifteen. The train was scheduled to leave at five, precisely five, Zeldovich had said confidently. “They will take care of the details,” Zeldovich assured him.
“Thank you,” Alex responded. He had no illusions about Zeldovich. It had been an uneventful trip from the dacha near Barvikha to the Yaroslav station. Viktor Moiseyevich Dimitrov, the sixty-nine-year-old General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had been expansive at lunch. His appetite had returned along with his color, and he had stuffed himself with huge portions of black bread and globs of sour cream heaped on top of deep bowls of borscht. 
The chemotherapy was working, Alex had observed, his doctor’s pride swelling as he reviewed the charted progress and the past six weeks of endless diagnosis, observation and treatment. At best, the disease was tricky, and as cunning as a jungle beast. Acute myeloblastic leukemia was a microscopic war between the proliferating white blood cells and the rapidly weakening red blood cells in Dimitrov’s body. And the reds had been losing. 
Now, Dimitrov was no longer in the depressed manic state Alex had initially encountered. At lunch a waiter had brought a fat bass, broiled brown and dripping with butter. Dimitrov had watched its arrival, broadly smiling with boyish glee. Alex had been allowing him to fish again in the Moscow River, which meandered a few yards from the rear of the dacha. Fishing was Dimitrov’s one passion, aside from exercising his power, and being able to fish again had restored the General Secretary’s buoyancy, reassuring him that he had been snatched, however temporarily, from the grave. 
Alex had only picked at the fish. Despite his anxiety, he was somewhat excited by the prospect of his upcoming Siberian journey. Although, under different circumstances, he now would have been searching back in time, with all the emotion that nostalgia engenders, to prepare his mind for the mystique of the adventure. “It is a legacy of the soul,” his grandfather, that old Siberian fox, would have said. But to begin such a journey under duress seemed, somehow, incongruous. 
He looked down at the fish, runny with butter, the skin crisp and shiny, wondering if he could force his appetite. “Delicious, Kuznetzov. Eat!” Dimitrov commanded, jabbing his knife forward, a trickle of butter escaping along the side of his mouth. 
Despite himself, despite what he suspected, Alex felt satisfaction in Dimitrov’s enjoyment. It was the damndest personal sensation, this dichotomy within himself, this raging war between between his odd affection for the man and the knowledge of his impending act. Could it be possible he was mistaken? That all the comings and goings, the odd bits of information, the strange admissions, and little confessions of Dimitrov himself, were only a distorted view through some faulty prism? I am a doctor. I am apolitical. You had no right to draw me into this, he wanted to shout across the table, trapped now like a fly that has fatally touched the flypaper with the tip of one wing. 
“Why the long Siberian exit?” he had asked. “A flight would be much faster.” 
“Nonsense,” Dimitrov had said blandly, as if he were merely persuading Alex to have another glass of brandy. “How could you deprive yourself? How many chances like this do you get in life? Whoever heard of a Russian with no curiosity about his past? Don’t be foolish. I insist.” 
“But my wife—” Alex had answered mildly, not able to bring himself to even the first plateau of genuine protest. His wife was certainly no reason to return. He might have been more accurate to say, “My life.” 
“Take a look at where you began,” Dimitrov persisted, knowing that there was truth there, a match to dry tinder, for Alex had often longed to see the place from where his grandfather had escaped. But his escape had been only physical. In the old man’s mind and heart, he had never really left Siberia. 
“I’ll come back,” Alex mumbled. “I’ll do it another time.” “Nonsense,” Dimitrov said. “It is my gift. Consider what you have given me.” 
Another old fox, Alex thought. Why don’t you tell me the truth? I know too much. Perhaps you’ll never let me out. “One more week. What will it matter?” 
Alex had been gone six weeks. “The Politburo meets in seven weeks,” the American Secretary of State had emphasized again and again. “You must keep Dimitrov alive until that meeting,” he might have said if he had not been so well schooled in diplomacy. Alex had, of course, understood the message and had done his duty. How na├»ve and ineffective the President and the Secretary now looked in retrospect. Dimitrov had outmaneuvered them both. 
Still worse, he, Alex, could be characterized as a co-conspirator. And this trip was his fat reward for success. Let me put you in a rolling prison across the wastes of Siberia while I prepare a holocaust. Did they think he had brains the size of a pea? Suddenly the idea of seeing his wife again—dear, bland, irritating, unaffectionate Janice—seemed almost attractive. 
How they must have chuckled over their good fortune in discovering Alex, a Russian-speaking doctor who was an expert on leukemia. And he had been right under their noses at the National Institutes of Health. At first he had been very unreceptive. Couldn’t they have found someone else for this job? He was above politics, disgusted with their silly little power games. The preservation of human life, the alleviation of suffering, was the bedrock of his motivation. He had actually willed himself to be apolitical, dismissing everything that was not within the confines of his expertise. In mankind’s stupidity, man inflicted so much misery on himself, and could not seem to organize society for his own benefit. But that was the politicians’ problem. One could not bleed over uncontrollable factors. At least in his field he could focus on a recognizable enemy. All else was trivia, he had convinced himself. 
Now, in Moscow, the events of the last six weeks had effectively demolished that self-delusion.
As Dimitrov’s strength returned, so did his cunning. He had struck exactly the right chord for a Russian—antecedents, roots. Russians and their damned ancestor fixation. To this day, every child born was given two names—his own and his father’s. “Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Kuznetzov” was the name, which appeared on Alex’s original birth certificate. He had changed it to Alexander Cousins, in spite of his father’s passionate opposition. But he could not change the heritage that had been programmed into his fantasies from birth. Siberia—a myth weathered and matured by repetitive storms of memory. His grandfather had been caught in the Czar’s penal machinery as a boy and sent to Siberia as punishment. He had helped build the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and his labor shortened his sentence. He ended up in Irkutsk, which was dubbed the “Paris of Siberia.” After several years there, his grandfather took his wife and young son, and escaped to America. It was with these stories of youth, hardship, despair, danger and escape that Alex’s ancient gnarled grandfather had mesmerized him, ever since he was old enough to understand. As he grew older he could pick Siberia out on a map, roughly along the fifty-fifth degree of latitude. He learned that it was an area of five million square miles that could encompass all of the United States, including Alaska, all of Western Europe, and still have hundreds of thousands of square miles left over. The route the family had taken was through farms and cattle ranches, through trackless virgin forests, around the earth’s deepest lake, to heights where the sky is fair for all but sixteen days of the year, down to places where swarms of insects tortured men and animals, and through pockets scourged by unspeakable disease and Manchurian tigers. During those interminable first days with Dimitrov, Alex had, of course, dwelt on these stories with relish, especially after seeing Dimitrov’s enchanted reaction. It was all part of the treatment. Who could have expected it to be flung back at him like a weapon?
~~~


When Author Warren Adler put out a notice that he was celebrating Russian Literature Week by placing one of his books on sale, I immediately knew I wanted to read the book. For two reasons, besides the fact that I am a fan of this author...

First, many years ago, I had a strange dream. Without going into details...I was with a prisoner in the Siberian jails. He was dying and I was there comforting him until he had died... Since then my interest of Siberia has continued... 

Since my only knowledge had been about the prisons in Siberia, I was thrilled to meet citizens of the area who were just as loyal to their homelands as most people are about where they live... One of the main characters, Anna Petrovna Valentinova, Professor of History, resident of Irkutsk, was such a woman and she became a favorite as I watched and learned about her life...

Second, if I had a bucket list, the top item would be to travel by train across the United States... Or, at least, I would have until I read the book! LOL, because it wasn't quite like I imagined it would be...

For one, if you are traveling alone, you may be housed with either a man or woman. In fact our main character Dr. Cousins and the female from Siberia were the two that were given the same compartment on the train...

Set in the 1960-70s, this may no longer be true and I at least wanted to learn a little about the Trans-Siberian Express and very much enjoyed the video I found. One thing I noted was that the train route has been expanded into China since then...

But it might not have been if a certain event planned in the '60s had actually occurred--at least according to Author Warren Adler!

Dr. Alex Cousins, an American doctor was an expert in the treatment of leukemia. His real name had been Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Kuznetzov before they had come to America. He had legally changed his name, even though his family had opposed it. But that change did not keep the Federal Government from finding Dr. Cousins, with the intent that he should help keep alive a Russian Diplomat, Viktor Moiseyevich Dimitrov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Or at least keep him alive until a special meeting could occur...

Dr. Cousins was successful in at least getting Dimitrov to the point of remission. But he warned that he didn't know how long he would have, since he should still be considered terminal...

To thank him for what he'd done for him medically, Dimitrov aggressively gave him a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express, and, supposedly, to give him a gift of seeing the home of his grandfather. Although Dr. Cousins tried to resist taking the trip, he finally gave in, but noticed that there seemed to be a number of people who were intent on keeping track of him... And there just happened to be an entire train car of soldiers that had been added for this trip... 

Alex Cousins was soon watching all those around him, wondering whether the people that seemed to be following him was there to ensure he was safe--or to ensure he didn't finish the trip... For it had been impossible for the doctor not to have picked up much information as he'd provided medical support.

But soon, as we might have expected, Alex falls deeply for his room companion and readers are invited to enjoy their blossoming relationship...

At the same time, one of the more interesting aspects of the novel is meeting many of those other travelers on the train... and how their lives come together for both good and bad exchanges... In fact, with the excellent book description of this book, I'll not go into detail of the plot, but rather the characters...

One of the most intriguing characters was a service worker on the train...she felt it was her duty to know all of those assigned to her area and to meet their needs...and if, by chance, she might meet a traveler--a gentleman, well-mannered and good appearance, she might make special efforts to ensure the quality of her service was of the highest. But aside from her few personal encounters, she was proud of her position, her home away from home and was a hard worker, trying to go beyond her duties whenever she could... That naturally got her involved deeply in some of the turmoil...

Like when the young couple who were traveling to a part of Russia established to house Jews, and the wife became ill, she thought nothing of contacting Dr. Cousins to treat the woman. Even then, though, Adler's skill in merging lives and bringing about an accomplished, complete story as he then pulls in another lone traveler who is out for revenge, and a "spoiled little brat" who causes him pain and, later, trouble... Readers will surely want to discipline the young bully, for his parents, who were government workers presented an example of poor parenting, to say the least...

I am constantly pleasantly surprised at the diverse range of topics that Adler covers in his books. I was drawn to this particular book because of my own interests and found it a quite satisfactory tale of adventure and intrigue. Do check it out as one of Adler's earlier books, this time during the Cold War Era...


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