Rewriting history is permissible in the name of art. That’s the essence of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, The Master of Petersburg, which imagines the gambling-addicted Dostoyevsky returning to Russia, under an alias to avoid creditors, to mourn the suicide of his stepson, Pavel. So convincing is Coetzee’s prose that only after I closed the novel did I discover Pavel actually outlived the great Russian writer.
In fact the novel’s idea comes from a similar tragedy in Coetzee’s life, the death of his own son. So real life and fictionalised history meet to act as a medium for the author to deal with his loss. I applaud Coetzee’s ambition and trick of legerdemain. But there’s nothing else to admire here.
Dostoyevsky meets Pavel’s landlady and starts a relationship with her, using her, one of the last people to know Pavel, as a way of keeping his stepson alive. It’s a fool’s plan doomed to failure and that only brings personal complications to himself, to her and her daughter, Matryona.
At the same time the writer is dragged to a political intrigue involving Pavel and the revolutionary circles he was part of. This includes meeting the Nihilist Sergei Nechaev, a wanted terrorist. Rumors circulate that perhaps Pavel was in fact murdered, either by the police or by his associates.
But it doesn’t matter. The purpose of this subplot seems to matter nothing. Nothing seems to have substance, except perhaps the heartfelt moments when Dostoyevsky reflects about the loss of his son and their love-hate relationship. In these moments of intimacy the novel is powerful. But it hardly breaks new ground.
The novel just reaffirms the fact that Coetzee is a prose master and that he has few equals when it comes to write about misery and depressed states.
more about this book read on wikipedia