The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 26, 2007

Pelagia and the Curies

The wise man knows that there are no coincidences or intents. We are all lemmings whose every action is preordained from the moment of conception, and we are dragged through our lives by the subtle gravitational forces exerted upon us by various planetary configurations, the caprice of Gods and the illusion of free will. Thus it will not surprise the wise man that I finished reading Boris Akunin's Pelagia And The Black Monk last night, and this morning I read that Eve Curie was dead, aged 102.

No, I assure you that there is no non-sequitur in this asseveration. Akunin, as I have had occasion to mention in previous posts, is the prolific writer of historical crime fiction. His hero and heroine, Fandorin and Sister Pelagia respectively, ply their trades in the Tsarist Russia of the late 19th century. The writing is arch with conversational asides from the narrator to the dear reader, full of knowing and prescient addresses, adumbrations and admonitions. Whilst in the Fandorin cycle, Akunin explores the variants of the crime genre (to wit, the locked-room mystery, the espionage story, the world-conspiracy tale and so on) in a facetious and exaggerated style, the Pelagia series is much fluffier, differentiated by weaker, repetitive plot structures. The humour is far more laboured, the successive disguises and contortions by Pelagia, a beautiful, freckled and red-headed Muscovite noblewoman-turned-nun and gymnastics teacher, are unlikelier than Fandorin's scarcely credible multifaceted skills. And yet, both characters are engaging and sympathique, and the books offer little moments of joy in this otherwise bleak and overbearing world.
Marie Curie (holding hat), Irene (on her right), Eve (on her left), 1921
As I said, historical figures dot both series of novels. In Pelagia And The Black Monk, a physicist discovers radioactivity in the remnants of a meteorite at a Russian monastery, and develops a cordial scientific relationship with Toto and Masha in France. Unfortunately, the physicist is also insane. When his psychiatrist informs his interlocutors of this fact, they begin to ignore his missives and entreaties, much to his frustration and baffled anger. It is only towards the end of the book that we discover who Toto and Masha are: Antoine Becquerel and Marie Curie, whose work in the extraction of uranium and radium from pitchblende is known to and encouraged by our lunatic.

And it is this fact that neatly connects Pelagia with today's obituaries of Eve Curie. The second of Marie Curie's daughters, Eve was a famed beauty in her youth, no less talented than her illustrious parents and elder sister Irene. Growing up in Paris during the roaring twenties, in advance of the fashion by some 15 years, [she] discovered beach life, swimming races, sun-bathing, camping out on deserted islands, the tranquil immodesty of sport. She was a superb pianist, an irrepressible bodyguard for her mother during their fund-raising tours of the United States (she was called the girl with the radium eyes by an adoring press), an ardent partisan and supporter of the Free French against the Nazi occupation, and a widely travelled war correspondent tasked with reporting from an uninterrupted line of anti-Axis territories — some belligerent, some non-belligerent — stretching all around the earth with the Herald-Tribune. She lunched with Churchill, hobnobbed with Nehru (a handsome prince in a fairy-tale) and interviewed the Shah of Iran. Despite the fame she amassed and her brilliant achievements, she was wont modestly to point that she was the only one in her family not to have won a Nobel Prize. Movingly, too, throughout her long and storied life, she carried a survivor's guilt of being the only one in her family not to have succumbed to cancer.


Post a Comment