The Accidental Anarchist, By Bryna Kranzler: Book Review

Jewish refugees Liverpool 1882
Jewish refugees from Russian pogrom, Liverpool, England 1882


Bryna Kranzler’s The Accidental Anarchist traces the adventures and misadventures of Jacob Marateck, the author’s grandfather. The book is based on Jacob’s diaries, which were written from memory. The diaries document Jacob’s personal history and are part of the Marateck family legacy.

Jacob Marateck was witness to dramatic events in Russian history. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War, conspired with revolutionaries and was exiled to Siberia. Eventually, he followed the only path that would insure his survival: He emigrated.

Jacob’s saga begins when he is conscripted into the Russian army. The naive youth stumbles through a series of calamities from which he manages, improbably, to escape. He brings along with him on his travels three abiding tools that get him through the adventures: a clever mind, an abiding sense of humor, and an unshakable faith. That faith, in my view, more than anything else, becomes the spine of this story.

When Jacob sets off for the army, his family, and just about everyone who knows him, gather and bid him goodbye. Ahead of him lies the unknown. Behind, an insular society, one that has provided family, friends and moral compass. What will the world, what will the Russian army, do to Jacob? His father offers advice that will stay with Jacob and protect him from the mischief of outside influences. “Be a Jew”, his father instructs. We see throughout the book that it is this injunction, and Jacob’s adherence to it, that determine the course of his life and his character.

His father’s words ring in Jacob’s ears as he marches to war. They provide strength as he struggles to resist temptations . “Be a Jew”. Conforming to his mandate means conforming to the laws of the Torah, even when hunger and carnal desire strike.

Of course, being a Jew in imperial Russia is not an identity Jacob can easily deny. Antisemitism pervades every aspect of Russian society. It is inescapable in the marketplace, the courts and the army.

Although Jacob’s journey takes him to war, prison and exile, his tone is never grim. The book has an almost picaresque quality. Even more than Bryna Kranzler’s art, I believe it is Jacob’s humor that makes his story enjoyable.

The essential truth of Jacob’s recollections is born out by other material from the same era. Tolstoy’s Resurrection, for example, describes an irrational court system, a decadent military and a brutal process of exile. Resurrection is not simply a novel. It was Tolstoy’s attempt to expose flaws in Russian society and government. The book has been faulted for being a screed rather than a work of fiction.

Byrna Kranzler has done a skillful job editing and organizing her grandfather’s diaries. After his death, associates and family recognized the value of his unique record. They preserved the diaries and transcribed them. Kranzler explains that she is third in the line of this legacy project. She edited and consolidated the material further. Consolidation involved taking liberty with details to create an entertaining story. The result is a blend of history, memoir and novel.

Overall, The Accidental Anarchist may be taken as a genuine reflection of the diarist’s experience. I would have enjoyed reading the originals, in translation, but most readers would probably prefer this more organized rendition. The Accidental Anarchist is a well-written and worthwhile book.

A. G. Moore     August, 2017

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