Monday, February 4, 2008

Rasputin's Daughter

I’ve always had a certain fascination/attraction/repulsion towards Rasputin. Who was he? And how did he hold so much power over the Romanoffs?

If the animated Anastasia is to believed, Rasputin was basically the devil incarnate. If Robert Alexander’s Rasputin’s Daughter is to believed, Rasputin was a complicated, and potentially misunderstood, man.

Rasputin’s Daughter has been languishing in my “to read” pile for over a year. After unsuccessfully starting half a dozen books last week, I finally picked it up. And I had a difficult time putting it down.

I had only a vague notion of who Rasputin was, and the novel provides insight from an interesting perspective: Rasputin’s eighteen-year-old daughter Maria. Maria narrates the last week of Rasputin’s life, including the dichotomies of his character.

Rasputin is a miraculous healer, calling on the powers of heaven to save the Heir Tsar. Yet, he is also licentious and uses his authority and influence to take advantage of people sexually. Maria tries to reconcile the two seemingly opposite sides of her father’s character.

As an author, Alexander breaks many rules. His narrator is young Russian female. So not only does he write from the perspective of someone from the opposite sex but also from someone of an entirely different nationality—two things an American male can know little about.

Yet, the narration is successful. Despite writing in first-person, Maria’s inner monologue is kept at a minimum. She is shocked at her father’s sexual exploits, confused by his healing powers, and attracted to a young man, Sasha. Such feelings are universal despite sex or nationality.

More than anything, I felt sympathetic towards Maria and even somewhat sympathetic towards Rasputin. Why the nobility hated him is never clearly explained (apart from a vague relationship with the Tsar and Tsarina), so I felt both shock and disgust over his murder.

After finishing the book, though, I had to remind myself that it is historical fiction and not necessarily accurate in any way, so I immediately performed an internet search (the fastest but not necessarily the most authoritative way of finding information) on Rasputin and Maria.

Interestingly, everything I found was very unsympathetic towards Rasputin. And I discovered that many aspects of Maria’s life (SPOILER ALERT: e.g., her relationship with Sasha and subsequent pregnancy) were entirely fictionalized by Alexander. Indeed, Maria actually went on to lead a very colorful life that included cabaret dancing and lion taming.

I enjoyed the book so much, and Alexander’s writing style, that I couldn’t help but be disappointed by how little his narrative apparently reflects reality. Perhaps my next read should be a nonfiction account of Maria and Rasputin.

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