In Enchantments, Kathryn Harrison’s beautifully sculpted seventh novel, we meet Rasputin, but only after he is dead. It’s Jan. 1, 1917, and Rasputin’s frozen body has just been fished out of the Neva, near St. Petersburg’s Petrovsky Bridge, with enough cyanide in him “to finish off ten horses.” His eldest daughter, Masha, who is 18, has to prepare him for burial. “I looked at his ragged fingernails, which were unusually clean – from his three days in the river, I guessed.”
It’s Masha who narrates the novel. She was born in Siberia, where she had her own horse, but had to move to St. Petersburg after her father – the mad, wandering monk – mesmerized the Russian court and became the spiritual adviser to the czarina. But the czar is away at war and the country is ruined; and without Rasputin, there’s no one to take care of Alyosha, Russia’s crown prince.
The czarevich is a “bleeder,” a hemophiliac who inherited the disease from his great grandmother, Queen Victoria. He isn’t even 14. The czar’s subjects aren’t aware of Alyosha’s disease. He’s tucked away with the whole royal family at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the czar’s private village outside Petersburg. It was the Mad Monk who had kept him alive, who could heal him with his savage blue eyes and rough, unwashed hands.
Now, Masha has to inherit her father’s job. The czarina “kidnaps” her and brings Masha to Czarskoe Selo as the czar’s own ward. But Masha has no mystical powers. Her father could bring dead goats back to life, enchant an entire village, and all Masha can do is ride a Siberian horse without a saddle. But the charm and great sadness of the novel is the strange love that suddenly develops between the czarevich and Rasputin’s daughter. She does “heal” him in her own way, without her father’s gifts. She breathes her wild life into him. The boy can read Russian history better than the czar. He knows that the royal family will soon be wiped out. Yet he falls under Masha’s sway.
Neither of them had ever made love, but Masha lets the boy grope under her blouse. At 18, she’s much older, and their first kiss has all the fatality of a conjurer’s spell. It will ruin Masha, make her unfit for any other man. She doesn’t have Alyosha for very long. The czar is forced to abdicate. The provisional government breaks the grip of Czarskoe Selo. Soldiers wander across the grounds, grab whatever they can. “The first to die were the tamed deer that roamed the tamed forest.”
Kerensky, head of the provisional government, sneaks the royal family onto a train headed for the Urals. “They went with two valets, six chambermaids, ten footmen, three cooks, four assistant cooks, a butler, a sommelier, a nurse, a clerk, and their two spaniels, Joy and Jimmy. Within a year they’d all be dead, all except one of the dogs, the one named Joy, of all things. I’d never see any of them again. Not in my waking life.”
But the novel isn’t really about Masha’s waking life. It’s a dreamscape where she can conjure up Alyosha and the gardens of Czarskoe Selo through the “window” of an Imperial Easter egg. “I was in the palace in the egg and in the palace the egg was in.”
But all her conjuring can’t bring Alyosha back from the dead. She marries a mountebank who rescues her from the Bolsheviks; they escape the madness of revolution and end up as Russian refugees in Paris. They’re both penniless now. Then Masha joins a circus as a bareback rider.
“Before another year passed I’d be performing as the Daughter of the Mad Monk Rasputin.”
Harrison doesn’t give us a Tolstoyan glimpse of the Russian Revolution; we’re never burdened with epic battles between the good and the bad. Rasputin was an illiterate monk, not a madman who brought down the monarchy. And the czar was just a little man who never understood his own subjects and became one more miniature inside a magic Easter egg. Harrison has written a love story, nothing more, nothing less, where the cruel thunder of history can’t compete with the enchantment inside Rasputin’s daughter’s head.
Jerome Charyn’s most recent novel is The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.
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