Monday, May 28, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“KONSTANTIN” by Tom Bullough (Penguin/Viking , $NZ37)
To my shame and humiliation I admit it.

I had to do a little research (beginning with Wikipedia) to find out who Kostantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was, and I am now thoroughly annoyed with myself that I did not already know.

In a nutshell, Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was one of the major pioneers in “astronautics”, the theory of space travel and rocketry. Working on his own, first in Tsarist Russia then in Soviet Russia, he was the first to devise some of the chief principles that made space travel possible. But most of his research was still unpublished when the German Hermann Oberth and the American Robert Goddard independently formulated some of the same hypotheses. In the West, Oberth and Goddard are regarded as the fathers of space travel. But in Russia, Tsiolkovsky gets the crown. He featured on Soviet-era postage stamps. In 1957, Sputnik was launched to coincide with the centenary of Tsiolkovsky’s birth. The statues of him that were put up have outlasted the Soviet Union.

So much for who Konstantin was in history.

Now let me deal with who Konstantin is in this brilliant, brief (not quite 200 pages) novel by a young British author.

Tom Bullough is not concerned to tell the whole life story of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. He is concerned simply to show the formation of an intuitive young scientific mind. Rounded off with a startling coda, Konstantin is an impressionistic account of the childhood and young manhood of the scientist between 1867 (when Tsiolkovsky was ten) and 1881 (when Tsiolkovsky was 24), before any of his scientific papers were published.

We are getting a portrait of the young man before his public lift-off.

Young “Kostya” is restlessly imaginative and inquisitive in his small, provincial town in late Tsarist Russia. He is adventurous. On the opening pages he faces off against a wolf when he takes it upon himself to walk through a forest to bring food to his father who is labouring in a lumber camp. (The image of hungry wolves re-emerges surpisingly in the novel’s last pages). He climbs to the very top of the cupola on a high church tower, against the screamed protests of his young playmates, to see the curvature of the Earth. Speed attracts him. He is keen on tobogganing over the snow that is generously on offer and he breaks the ice and plunges into a frozen river even though he never learns to swim properly.

Through the cold of a Russian winter he also contracts scarlet fever, nearly dies, and almost loses his hearing, leading to a life-long dependence on ear-trumpets. There is the subtle suggestion that partial loss of hearing might have heightened his other senses and made him more cerebrotonic than he would otherwise have been.

Though he is often absorbed in his thoughts, there is no suggestion that little Kostya is an isolate. He is endlessly inquisitive, plays with other kids, and frequently pours out his ideas to his brother Ignat.

We might judge that the remote provincial town would limit his potential and not provide him with intellectual stimulation. But Tom Bullough is seeing this from the child’s own viewpoint. (Wisely, the novel is narrated in the third-person limited voice, so that we see and experience only what Kostya sees and experiences, but we are not limited to a child’s vocabulary). Everything is a source of wonder to the kid, from the geometry he observes in the natural world to the models of fantastic “reaction engines” (i.e. jets) he begins to devise; from the few scientific textbooks he can access to the Jules Verne fantasies he gobbles up.

At least one part of Konstantin’s interest is purely historical. We know that late imperial Russia was technologically far behind western Europe, and this might tempt us to believe that it was lacking in speculative thought. Bullough’s novel suggests otherwise. Though Tsiolkovsky was largely an autodidact (he flunked out in school and didn’t make it to university), his self-teaching in a library in Moscow suggests a ferment of ideas. Oddly, the librarian who is sometimes his mentor is a devout Orthodox Christian, who wants science to advance so that Man will once again live in harmony with nature, as in the Garden of Eden. There is that odd Russian combination of pragmatism and mysticism. It is found, too, in Tsiolkovsky’s parents. His Polish father is a sceptic who prefers not to set foot in churches. His Russian mother is a devout worshipper who firmly believes that contact with the holy icon of St. Nikolai will cure her son’s deafness. The novel sees both parents as equally important influences on the boy.

While the novel is convincing in the way it takes the temperature of its time and place, it does not pile on the period detail for its own sake. Bullough is more interested in the development of a young consciousness.

Early in the novel, we see a bright but purely childish imagination as Kostya talks to his brother Ignat. He is still thinking in terms of magical transformations:

             In my world… there wouldn’t be any gravity, so it would be easy to pick up anything we liked. In my world I would be able to jump versts through the air. I would be able to jump through the clouds and right out into the ether. If I wanted to go to Moscow I would just have to run and jump and I could fly there, easy. The people in the train would see me zooming past like a cannonball! I would bring back a new dress for Mama, and a smart fountain pen for Papa, and a whole cow for us all to eat…” (Pgs.9-10)

A little later, the child’s imagination becomes more genuinely speculative and analytic, as Kostya observes the universe while on a journey. A childish egocentricity is still there, but Kostya now begins to break things into atoms, and realizes that journeys entail some sort of technology, even if he continues to think in terms of fairy-tale technology:

            Silent, unmoving above the shivering sledge, the stars hung untroubled by clouds or even the moisture that flooded the air on those summer night when he might sleep outside on the grass. Kostya followed the track they lay above their own, conscribed by the treetops. He imagined that the stars were the atoms of some monumental being, perhaps of God Himself. He imagined that he was flying through the ether, pulled not by horses but by a skein of swans, and that soon he would arrive on other planets circling other stars, where he would be hailed as tsar by creatures who communicated not, he thought, by sound but by means of pictures mounted on their chests, which they would use to send messages even faster than the telegraph.” (Pg.35)

And a little later still, the fairy-tale technology is giving way to realizable technology, even if the dreams remain the grandiose dreams of a child:

            As tsar, Kostya would abolish death and allow no limit either to food or transort. He would build a railway in a belt around the equator, where a 4-2-4 would travel at a perpetual 123 versts per hour, its smoke rising in a spiral into space, and as he ate meat pies on the velvet cushions of his carriage he would lean from his window to regard the passing stars, to lift his hat to Mercury and Mars.” (Pg.68)

I believe passages such as these, and the novel’s whole concept of the developing young mind, declare the essential theme of Konstantin :-  A lively imagination is needed as much in science as in the arts. Intuitive leaps are as important for great science as are observation, hypothesis and experimentation. The fairy-tales and icons of his mother make Tsiolkovsky a great innovator as much as the rational measuring and logical thought of his father.

You will note that all the passages I have quoted here come from the earlier part of the novel, when Kostya is eleven years old. The young manhood passages (Konstantin married and beginning a family) are not quite as focused, and Bullough is tempted to lecture us a little as Konstantin gives a classroom lesson on physics and puts his infant daughter to sleep with grand speculations on space travel and the size of the universe.
This has annoyed a couple of critics.

In her review in the (English) Observer (which you can easily retrieve on-line) Ophelia Field generally praises this novel, especially its opening childhood section, but she complains that it does not have a well-wrought plot because, she says, Tom Bullough is constrained by the facts of Tsiolkovsky’s biography.

I disagree.

Even if there is the whiff of a lecture in one chapter, this is a perfectly-proportioned short novel, deliberately not venturing beyond the moment of young inspiration and the genesis of the adult scientist. Its milieu convinced me as authentic and it has some of the best-crafted prose I have encountered in a novel for some time. And for its factual information as much as anything else, I found the last chapter (the novel’s coda, set in the 1960s) a stunner.

Konstantin is a lovely piece of work.

Footnote – Here’s an odd coincidence. Tsiolkovsky was a great scientist who was afflicted with deafness after a childhhod mishap. So was Thomas Alva Edison. I recently read Anthony McCarten’s latest (short) novel Brilliance, which deals with Edison and his corruption by monetary interests. There must be something in the Zeitgeist that is attracting young writers to fictionalised tales of pioneer scientists. The deafness of the Russian and the American might also imply that there is something in the theory that this condition drove both men to a more intense speculation. Just a thought.

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