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BOOK REVIEW

A ‘leftist’ awakens after the fall

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Globe Correspondent / July 30, 2010

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‘When people said it was strange to construct the perfect society on a foundation of human bones, all you got was glib self-satisfied answers from the communists. Oh, they said, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. . . . How callous. How inhuman.’’ So wrote the indignant mother of Feliks Zhukovski, recounting her experiences in her native Poland after World War II, in a deathbed letter addressed to Feliks and his brother decades after the three of them had lost contact with one another during the war.

Feliks, who is now 61 and lives in France, is the cerebral yet emotionally stunted leftist at the heart of Jim Powell’s magnificent debut novel, “The Breaking of Eggs.’’ The year is 1991 and the recent collapse of communism has not only jolted Feliks, but terminated his career as author of an annually updated travel guide to Eastern Europe for lefties, one in which he calls East Germany an economic miracle.

Ironically, however, the fall of the Iron Curtain also gives him a new lease on life. Thanks to the much-too-convenient artifice of a resourceful official with the French security services who suddenly pops up on the scene, Feliks tracks down his long-lost brother in the United States and his lover in East Germany. He also learns exactly what happened to his mother. It turns out she died of natural causes — “I was one egg that wouldn’t be broken’’ — in 1979, but her letter becomes a major addition to a string of searing personal testaments from his brother, lover, and others along his journey, all of which force him to reconsider his views of communism.

This may seem like a moot proposition for a 21st-century novel. After all, neither the unsound theoretical bases of communism nor the abominable crimes against humanity committed by its partisans are widely disputed. But “The Breaking of Eggs’’ is no frenzied and outdated polemic. Powell, a Briton, takes aim at the larger phenomenon of totalitarianism of any kind. This haunting, quietly brilliant story of how one man’s emotional upheavals compel him to question his most cherished beliefs underscores the danger posed by any ideology that blinds people to everything but its goals, and justifies the sacrifice of humans to achieve those goals.

Feliks is not exactly unreconstructed by the time the Soviet Union collapses. He resigned his membership in the French Communist Party decades earlier and has since pointedly considered himself a “leftist.’’ But he remains an admirer of and apologist for the bloody communist experiment. Now, however, his loved ones begin to unspool the coil of emotions he has wound so tightly within himself. Chilling self-observations emerge. “For my entire life,’’ Feliks muses, “I had failed to acknowledge any distinction between people and their ideas.’’ How easy, then, to overlook or even justify the extermination of certain people.

Significantly, triumphalism never creeps into Powell’s writing. Nor does Feliks metamorphose into his antithesis. In fact, he remains a leftist. Still, Powell convincingly has him undergo a seismic emotional transformation, one that enables him to adopt a critical attitude toward communist mantras, and modify his Weltanschauung so that it restores respect for human life, freedom, and dignity as the highest value. But that’s not all. That Powell succeeds in placing the conflicted and evolving Feliks at the center of a profound tale encapsulating Europe’s 20th-century travails makes “The Breaking of Eggs’’ that rare and remarkable achievement: a novel that meshes storytelling potency with historical erudition.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail.com.

THE BREAKING OF EGGS

By Jim Powell

Penguin, 352 pp., paperback, $15