“There was simply too much fun to be had.”
Reality and three narrowly dodged death sentences kind of puts a damper on that illusion as 13-year old Jacob Marateck, citing “the ignorance of youth and a desire for grand adventure,” leaves his small Polish hometown to seek some rudderless escapades in the Warsaw of the absorbing and often black-humored true story The Accidental Anarchist.
Indeed, the adventures in this novel are many, and unforeseen. Variety-spiced life mixed with historical events of the 1900s in Russia and Poland sees Marateck moving on from student to baker’s assistant, labor organizer to an officer in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 against the Japanese in China. Marateck has his own struggles close at hand, too, in situations “in which the men under my command wanted to kill me, simply for being a Jew, as much as the enemy did, simply for being in the way.”
At the same time, a fervent Marateck tries to contribute to the rumblings of revolution then underway, intent on doing his bit in overthrowing Czar Nicholas II — including joining in “amateur spy missions that would have gotten a Hollywood screenwriter fired.” But in the course of these uncertain times, he is sentenced to death three times, the first two times for, respectively, hitting a superior, and then for falling asleep on guard duty. Having narrowly averted execution in most entertaining and unexpected fashion, Marateck is then left to face the harsh Russian and Asian winters, surviving sub-zero nights, starvation-tested marches, and ongoing gun battles.
Returning to Warsaw to catch up with the revolutionaries, Marateck is arrested and sentenced to death again. But three times’s a charmed life, if you want to call it that, as he ultimately receives a reprieve and is sent instead to a Siberian labor camp. After escaping his fate of hard labor and permanent exile in Siberia with Warsaw’s eccentric “King of Thieves,” the two strive to survive while roaming the expanse of Russia from Petersburg to Siberia. The objective: obtain false papers to travel home while avoiding the Secret Police. With more adventures in different circumstances, the rollicking and rewarding second half of The Accidental Anarchist, ensues.
It’s all part and parcel of the the book’s captivating plot that gets a big boost from the writing and the characterization. “It is not the circumstances of our lives that determine who we are,” notes Kranzler in her Dedication, “but rather the way we choose to interpret them that defines our personalities and, to some extent, our destinies.”
In the author’s first-person narrator Marateck, then, we have a likeable interpreter whose wit, self-deprecation, and hopefulness shape and shift the defining moments of the novel, and see us through the grim circumstances of war and volatile political times. Through all that Marateck has experienced and endured, the narrative outlook carries us through the bleakness and death with unflinching directness and dark humor. We’re placed in the midst of war or 24/7 evasions from the government officials, replete with confusion, snafus, and Catch-22 frustrations.
And so, one page surrounds us in the chaos of battle and trench warfare, where Marateck helps transport a would-be wounded lieutenant, who turns out “was without a head and probably had been for some time.” Then the turn of a page will put us smack dab in the absurd midst of a scene where a dithering general has gotten his brigade lost: “We plodded on past devastated villages and frozen, long-unburied corpses until, at sunrise, our general, perplexed, halted the column and politely asked some blank-faced Manchurian peasants if they could tell him where to find the battlefield.”
Somewhere in that gray area between dire and droll lies one (among other) Marx Brothers-moment in which Marateck and his men had been seemingly “ditched”: “Our battalion, it seemed, had been ordered to retreat while we slept … and no one had bothered to wake us.” The situation might have been considered darkly amusing had the aftermath not been one of hardship and deadliness in wintry conditions over enemy lines. Even Marateck, long inured to the harsh contingencies of wartime experience, had kicked up his anticipatory dread and defenses a notch or two by now, saying “I’d never had any romantic notions of combat being anything other than terrible, but I had not expected it to be this terrible.”
But no matter what side of the emotional gamut is being explored, Kranzler’s vivid and visceral writing, anchored to the rock solid and consistent depiction of the protagonist and the force of history, makes for a seamless and cohesive page-chaser. The fact that this is a labor of familial love no doubt helps, too: Award-winning playwright Kranzler, Marateck’s granddaughter, is the daughter of Shimon and Anita Marateck Wincelberg, who had previously translated the 28 notebooks that made up Marateck’s diaries, publishing the first 12 as The Samurai of Vishigrod. After her father passed away, Kranzler inherited the job of editing and publishing the rest of her grandfather’s diaries. Presumably because there was still a lot of work to do.
And maybe because “There was simply too much fun to be had.”Powered by Sidelines