A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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This sweeping look at twentieth century Russia is seen though the eyes of Count Rostov, a member of the aristocracy, sent to trial and relegated to house arrest at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow. He stays there under pain of death and finds in the hotel, a kaleidoscope of fascinating characters, intrigues and tensions to keep himself amused. The reader is taken from Czarist Russia, through the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, to World War One, and then the aftermath of upheaval to the time of Stalin and the chilly relations with the West.

Relegated to a room ten feet square in the attic of the hotel, Rostov carves out a life for himself, which he finds surprising. All of his needs are met, and he is early bewitched  by a young girl, Nina the daughter of an official resident in the hotel, leaving the girl to fend for herself. She has a pass key to all the doors, and they explore together, Rostov learning that those who work behind the scenes are worth the trouble of getting to know. When Nina’s father is moved on, Nina leaves and Rostov helps in the restaurant, eventually becoming head waiter. Surprisingly Nina reappears with her young child, giving her to Rostov to keep until she returns. Her husband has been sent to Siberia, and it is where she is headed to support him. Rostov knows they are unlikely to return, such is the fate of many who are sent that way.

Through Sofia, Rostov learns more of the world, and it is against this background that the reader is made aware of Stalinist Russia and the Cold War. As Head Waiter, he meets many different people, from those who work for the American embassy, to journalists and members on the ruling elite in Moscow. He is staggered at the maturity shown by Sofia, and becomes aware that she loved music and is learning the piano. Her skill matures and she is chosen to perform in Paris.

Count Rostov makes plans for them both to escape the confines of Russia.

I loved this book, particularly the machinations behind the scenes. Rostov is there when petty bureaucrats make wholesale decisions that can ruin people’s lives, and is there to watch the jostling for position when Stalin dies, the main players eating dinner at the restaurant. The running of the hotel once in the safe hands of an experienced manager, is now taken over by a man absorbed by protocols and time management, with every thing accounted for. He makes sweeping decisions about the running of the hotel, the restaurant, the bars and the rooms, and as he hoovers up misdemeanours of the staff, they are all in his thrall.

A most rewarding book, one which allows the reader to laugh at the pettiness of bureaucracy while being made aware of the life and death struggles behind the facade.

Themes: Russia, USSR, Stalin, Cold War, World War One, Russian Revolution, Humour.

Fran Knight