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Living in a timeless world

Vikram Johri  |  New Delhi 

Mary Doria Russell’s fiction has always dealt with power and the search for elusive lands as a means to further it. In her first novel, The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God, a band of Jesuits colonise a distant planet. While their intentions are noble, the results of their actions are devastating.

For her fourth book, Dreamers of the Day, Russell shifts her gaze to the Middle East, specifically to the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference where a group of high-profile Europeans met to decide the fate of the region in the aftermath of the First World War. The reader’s guide along this fascinating trip is Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old spinster who lives the staid life of a schoolteacher in Cleveland, until she lands a huge pie of inheritance money.

Agnes is the only one from her extended family to survive the influenza pandemic of 1918. As per reports, an estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the period, ten times as many as in the Great War. Agnes loses her mother, brother, sister Lillian, Lillian’s husband and the couple’s two little sons.

The recipient of a sizable legacy, Agnes decides to convert a long-cherished dream, a visit to the Holy Land, into reality. Accompanied by her lovable dachshund, Rosie, she sets sail for Egypt, buoyed by the memory of her sister’s stay in the region, where Lillian served as a missionary for a while. Little is Agnes aware that she will land into a momentous event in modern history.

Her first experience of Egypt is unpleasant, unused as she is to “the crushing heat and a buzzing horror of flies”. But soon, thanks to Lillian’s connections, Agnes finds herself in illustrious company. There is Winston Churchill, a hoity-toity colonial secretary, who is mandated to secure British access to the region’s colossal oil reserves, under the garb, of course, of bringing stability to a fragile land. There is Gertrude Bell, the redoubtable British writer, credited with drawing up the borders of Mesopotamia (later Iraq). And there is the swashbuckling T E Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, who, having engineered the Arab revolt against the Turks, enjoys tremendous goodwill with the local populace.

Unbelievably, Agnes begins to spend time with these power brokers, moving in and out of their circle with the ease of an old timer. Bell is distant with Agnes, treating her as a novice, someone not to be bothered with as she goes about negotiating countries’ borders. Churchill, blunt to a fault and no believer of political correctness, regales Agnes with the nuances of warfare. It is the charming and principled Lawrence, however, to whom Agnes grows the closest.

In their midst is a fictional German spy, Karl Weilbacher, who gives Agnes her only real taste of romance. In this respect, the novel, in spite of its formidable cast of characters, continues to be Agnes’ story. So, even as he tries to extricate secrets out of Agnes—secrets that only she is privy to given her closeness with “the set”—Karl emerges as a sympathetic lover who enables Agnes to rethink her possibilities in love.

Eventually, Agnes returns to Cleveland and becomes a stock market player. Like the other crucial events in her life, the stock market crash of 1929 comes like a bolt from the blue, drowning her fortune.

Agnes narrates her eventful life story from beyond the grave. We are now in the present, and Agnes spends her days by the Nile, fulfilling a prophecy that anyone who swallows the mighty river’s water is fated to stay by its side for eternity. Like in life, Agnes is fortunate to rub shoulders with the high and mighty in death too: Gandhi, Napoleon et al.

Russell is a writer of great skill. The worlds she conjures are richly detailed products of meticulous research, if not personal experience. You may not agree with the political message of her book, but it is impossible to ignore her conviction, borne of deep humanity, that geopolitics does not sit well with hubris. As Lawrence wrote in his autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Russell uses to resounding effect in her book:

“Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

As America grapples with the fruits of its actions in Iraq, Dreamers of the Day is a timely reminder of that classic dictum: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books
288 pages; $14

First Published: Thu, March 05 2009. 00:02 IST