Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

translated by Jamie Bulloch

review by Maryom

Due to student unrest at St Petersburg university, the governor, Yegor von Rasimkara, has decided to close it indefinitely and spend the summer in the countryside with his family. Even so, he can't escape the threats that have been made against him. His wife believes he doesn't take them seriously enough and has arranged for him to employ a secretary who will also act as a bodyguard. Lyu is well-educated, cultured, fits in almost like a house-guest, and soon all the younger family members are drawn to him; the son Velya sees him as a role model; the daughters Jessika and Katya fall in love with this handsome outsider. Unfortunately, Lyu is hiding a secret - not only is he himself a supporter of the students and their demands, but he even has a plot of his own to kill the governor...

If a story has to be pinned down to fit a label, then The Last Summer, with its sense of violence and outrage about to erupt at any moment, is a psychological thriller. The tension is there from the start, with Lyu's arrival at the governor's house under false pretences, and steadily mounts as the reader sees how trusting and duped the family are.

The story evolves through the means of a series of letters - from Lyu to his revolutionary friend, between cousins, niece and aunt, brother and sister - which proves to be an excellent way of seeing 'behind the scenes' and listening in on private thoughts. The 'children' are, as might be expected, more progressive, and even revolutionary, in their outlook, representing various points along the line between acceptance of the status quo and outright rebellion. They act and talk like many a teenager with attitude but, despite their mother's view of them as still children, they're actually adults in their early twenties! I found Lyu himself to be the most enigmatic of the characters - even though he talks big, he seems at times to be trying to put things off. Maybe having got to know the detested 'figurehead' as a real person, he no longer feels so inclined to go ahead with his plans? While he prevaricates, the family continue totally unaware of his scheming ... and the tension rises ...

Although written in the early 20th century, and set in pre-revolutionary Russia, this story feels like it could fit almost anywhere, anytime; there are moments reminiscent of Chekhov (the whole Russian summer-in-the-country setting), others of the dilemma facing another secretary-cum-assassin in Sartre's Les Mains Sales written nearly 50 years later, and even of today's problems - with students and academics around the world being imprisoned and even executed for opposing their country's regime.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Peirene Press
Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

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