[23 May 2012]
If you had no idea that Russian mystic / charlatan / healer / pretender Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, aka the Mad Monk, had a wife and two daughters, you are not alone. In Kathryn Harrison’s latest novel, Enchantments, we get a fictionalized account of Rasputin’s eldest daughter, Matryona Grigorievna Rasputin, here called Masha.
Harrison is a nimble writer, perhaps best known for her autobiographical accounts of her parents, including 1997’s notorious The Kiss, an account of her incestuous relationship with her father. Harrison’s nonfiction extends beyond her parentage; she contributed a biography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to the terrific Penguin Lives series, published The Road to Santiago, a journal of her religious pilgrimage on the Camino De Santiago, and the unsettling true crime account While They Slept.
On the fictional front, Harrison’s work ranges from the semi-autobiographical novels Thicker than Water and Exposure, to historical works like Poison, The Binding Chair, and her latest work, Enchantments. The Seal Wife, published in 2002, comfortably balances the historical with the diversions of a fine novel. By any measure, Harrison’s range is formidable, her writing, (save 2005’s Envy, the one stinker amidst a shelf of otherwise lovely works) the kind reviewers trot out the jewelry analogies for: luminous, crystalline, faceted. In context, these adjectives indicate sentences writers labor over until no extraneous word mars the forward plot movement. Consider Harrison’s description of the River Neva flooding:
“Nearly every other fall, the Neva overflowed her pink-granite-lined banks and tried to scrub a layer or two of the city’s populace off her dirty face.”
Of Rasputin’s travels to the Holy Land via automobile:
“Around the Black Sea he tore. Odessa to Varna, he sped southward in a cloud of dragonflies the size of hawks. The sky was red, the earth was yellow: three hundred miles without a flat tire. Varna to Istanbul. the Blue Mosque’s swordlike minarets scratching at the heavens…”
Some sentences belong in museums.
When we meet Matryona Grigorievna Rasputin, she has just learned of her father’s death, which required great efforts on the part of his assassins: a meal laced with cyanide having failed, Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov and his henchmen are reduced to beating Rasputin about the head, then tossing him into the frozen River Neva. The year is 1917, and Russia is in upheaval. Rasputin, known to many as a saintly healer, is revered by the peasantry and Tsar Nikolay and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. But those planning his demise see him as too close to the Tsar and Tsarina, a man seeking power.
Masha fervently believes in him, recounting his selfless acts of healing, his enormous physical strength, his sexual prowess, the unshakable constitution making him nearly impossible to assassinate. In Masha’s eyes, her father is a beatified peasant, a man unable to read but quick with a sketchpad. He’s a seer, aware of his death and who will kill him. He can hear the grass, the insects, the howl of a tree as it’s cut down. He’s given to religious visions of the Holy Mother.
But most importantly, he alone can heal the Tsar and Tsarina’s son, the tsarevich Alyosha, a hemophiliac.
Hemophilia, or lack of blood clotting factor, ran in Queen Victoria’s family. Alexandra, the English queen’s granddaughter, was a carrier whose only son inherited the damaged gene. In the early 20th century, treatment of this then-fatal disease was primitive. Thus Alyosha was cosseted, bundled, protected at all times by two guards.
This wasn’t enough to prevent the mishaps common in childhood, or, worse, internal bleeding in his joints. Fearing addiction to opiates, the Romanov family refused give their son morphine during bleeding episodes. Harrison’s descriptions of Alyosha’s screams of pain as blood leaked into his extremities, then died from lack of circulation, verges on the grotesque and is certain to make all but the most callous shudder. Instead, Tsarina Alexandra prays, begging God to pass her son’s disease to her. Harrison’s evocation of a son’s illness is autobiographical, harkening to 2004’s The Mother Knot, where she writes candidly of a depressive episode worsened by her son Walker’s abrupt onset severe asthma.
”Inevitably, I strayed from the medical jargon of corporate websites into the hysteria of chat rooms… reciting helpless prayers—to fate, to whatever power might keep a child from harm, to a God whose presence I couldn’t feel. At bedtime I kneeled beside my son in the dark and silently invited his disease into my body.
After Rasputin’s murder, Masha and her sister, Varya, are rushed to the Romanov’s countryside estate, the Tsarkoe Selo, where the royal family have fled the city’s unrest. Masha is immediately summoned to the Tsarina’s quarters.
Known to the peasantry as “Mamochka”, or Little Mother, Alexandra forsook her English birthright and ardent Lutheranism in favor of Tsar Nikolay and the Russian Orthodox Church. She has little interest in court manners, cultivating hers just enough to get by. Now she implores Masha to carry on the task Rasputin could not finish: healing Alyosha.
Masha is well aware of her limitations. Unlike her father, she is no mystic healer. Her gifts lie with equines and a knack for storytelling. As the Revolution lurches forward and the Romanovs shift from Royalty to prisoners in Tsarkoe Selo, Masha becomes a variant Scheherazade, saving nobody’s life but offering Alyosha crucial distraction from the inevitable.
Harrison’s portrait of Rasputin and the Romanovs is surprisingly sympathetic and winning. Even as resentment and class hatred grow around this wealthy family, her Romanovs are people detached from the citizenry. They are not unkind, simply oblivious, a situation those close to them are happy to maintain. As the walls close in, they are less angry than bewildered. Tsar Nikolay, for his part, never wanted to lead Russia: his passions lay performing military exercises—marching maneuvers rather than war—and vigorous outdoor exertion. He is content to leave the serious decision making to his four meddling uncles.
Alexandra prefers reading and prayer to court antics. Their four daughters, so close they use the singular “OTMA” a distillation of their names, are given to prayer and lessons in flower arranging. Harrison mentions Anastasia as the brains of the outfit; in the larger world, she is the sole Romanov suspected to have escaped assassination by Red Army soldiers. Only Alyosha, a history buff whose illness has matured him beyond age 13, grasps the truth. He is disgusted by his father’s indifference.
Masha begins spending her days with Alyosha, who is hungry for stories: of her life in Siberia, of her father’s many miraculous healings, of fantastical events invented for a boy so fragile he is not permitted a bicycle. The stories of Siberia and Rasputin’s early life serve both Alyosha and the reader, explaining both the background and reasons an illiterate peasant with dirty fingernails become a seer and healer, while the more fantastical notions give Harrison license to venture into magical realism, a new place in her work. In one story, Alyosha wins a bicycle race around the moon against Chronos; in imagining the Tsar’s coronation ceremony, Harrison allows countless religious ikons to detach themselves from church walls and take to the streets and skies, where they squabble childishly.
The devil and his retinue also make an appearance during coronation, wreaking havoc. The Tsarina Alexandra often appears under a pink cloud, “making her own weather”, something her compatriots dismiss as related to her frail English blood. Yet the scenes work, for we are already inhabiting an arguably fantastical realm, a place outside reality—the Russian Revolution, where starvation, violence, and death are rampant. Closer to home, they address Harrison’s ongoing fascination with fathers, transcendence, blood, and transporting religious experience, written about in The Kiss, The Road to Santiago and Seeking Rapture.
Despite the difference in their ages—Alyosha’s 13 to Masha’s 18—Alyosha is soon pressing Masha for more than stories. A proper young woman, Masha concedes very little, even as Alyosha points out his inevitable early demise.
When that demise arrives, Masha and Varya manage to escape it, but at a price. “No one escaped Russia with his or heart intact” Harrison writes. Even as Masha moves from country to country, her former high status reduced to trading on her name, she cannot forget Alyosha, and what might have been.
At a time when the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has widened possibly irreparably, with its attendant, sickening violence, Enchantments is more than a charming novel. It is a way to see the Other, to understand him, and, perhaps, to peaceably co-exist.