Konstantin, Tom Bullough
Yet another of the spoils of Penguin Book Bloggers’ Night, Konstantin is soft-spoken Welsh author Tom Bullough‘s most recent novel about the father of russian space travel, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (see the stamp below).
Turning to this novel the moment I had finished Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I was deeply immersed in Russia, and keen to learn more of this great country.
Even before opening this book, without having the faintest idea of what it was about, I was drawn to it’s beautiful cover, simple, white, with russian-looking details drawn in red. The opening phrases,
Kostya hurried down the bank towards the frozen Oka, fine and light in his heavy sheepskin coat as a sparrow in its winter plumage
echoed the white simplicity of the cover and drew me into an icy expanse of Russian history from the very first words. I have always been a judge-by-the-cover kind of reader (so hard when shopping on my Kindle!) and was more than thrilled to realise that the content seemed to echo the cover.
Konstantin is, as mentioned, the story of the father of russian space travel’s early life, and is truly a rags-to-riches story. The book is divided into four parts: The first, Little Bird, chronicles the boy’s early life. With an academic father and a loving mother, he was given more chances than many of his fellow villagers, and his parents valued education highly. It soon becomes apparent that young Kostya has an exceptional mind, but is discontented with sticking to the established curriculum, disregarding plain sums for invention and explorations into gravity and physics. When he is struck with scarlet fever, his mother’s agony and worry was portrayed so achingly heart-wrenching that even I, ever the cathartic reader, feared for his life.
The second section, titled Konstantin, shows teenager Konstantin, rendered nearly deaf by the scarlet fever, travelling with his father to meet an important scientist and entrepreneur, and hopefully enter into an apprenticeship. Sadly for Konstantin, his brilliant mind and insistent command of the principles of physics make this appointment difficult, just as his wandering concentration had caused him to fail at school. Finally, his father sees no other option than to ship him off to Moscow, with a letter of introduction for the university. hrough a series of misfortunes Konstantin, armed with an ear trumpet of his own invention, manages to overcome obstacles that would have nipped the hopes of many a budding scientist in the bud.
There are many truly spectacular things about this novel. One of them is the fact that at no point does it feel like a dry biography, or a dull history lesson. It is a remarkably well written portrait of a young boy in 1860s Russia, with a sharp mind, a persistent innovative streak and a above-the-ordinary love for experimental science. (I guess nowadays he would have been called a geek, done really badly at his coursework but amazingly well at his special project or whatever a science-y dissertation is called, and gone on to work for Apple).
As Bullough chronicles the early experiments (fancy toboggans and stories, which little Kostya pays his brother to listen to), it is still the person, the human, who is at the centre of this story. Where lengthy scientific explanations are included, they are spoken or thought by Konstantin himself, and make him all the more plausible as a slightly socially inept nerd/genius. The raw emotion of his childhood, and the stark contrast between his life and those of his wealthier, yet less gifted fellow students, is shockingly poignant.
Beautifully crafted, elegantly plotted, with detailed characters and raw emotion, amazingly researched and informative (Bullough himself writes that it took him almost ten years to complete this novel), the perfection of this book starts with the cover, and is persistent through to the very last word. Read it, read it, read it.
(And unfold the dust jacket and hang it on your wall. It is that pretty. Whoever at Penguin is responsible for this cover should get some sort of award).