My two great loves in life, and my academic interests, are Canadian literature and political history. When I saw The Iron Bridge by Anton Piatigorsky in Goose Lane’s fall catalog I knew this was a book I had to read. A collection of six short stories, Piatigorsky fictionalizes the youth of six of the world’s most notoriously brutal despotic tyrants: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, Josef Stalin, Rafael Trujillo, and Adolf Hitler. Each and every one of these stories are masterful examples of historic fiction that, while reading, produces conflicted and confusing feelings.
What is most fascinating about Piatigorsky’s stories is that they humanize these evil men who were responsible for a over 100 million combined deaths. With some of these future dictators, Mao Tse-Tung in particular, the author actually crafts a very sympathetic character. This is done in part by Piatigorsky using the characters’ native language names (e.g. Ioseb Besarionis Jughashvili rather than Josef Stalin) so you form a bond with the protagonist before you are completely certain who he is.
Something that I was initially worried about with this book was that the author would try to pinpoint the moment that these men were driven mad. He didn’t. All of these stories are very episodic; they delve into potentially important moments, but not necessarily tipping-point moments. I am not 100% certain of the historical veracity of these stories, but the acknowledgements seem to indicate this book was extremely well researched.
The biggest strength in Anton Piatigorsky’s writing is his dialogue. This is not surprising since he is a highly decorated playwright. His characters’ idioms and speech patterns closely resemble what one sees in recordings of their public speeches. Stalin’s dialogue is full of reserved anger, Mao’s is full of hyperbole, and Hitler’s is full of lengthy and lofty rhetoric.
The Iron Bridge lived up to my expectations; it is complex, highly readable, the characters are three-dimensional, and the stories are all long enough to allow for real depth but not so long that they can’t be completed in one sitting. Also worth mentioning is the cover image. This is probably the most provocative and eye catching cover of any work of fiction released in the last number years. The Iron Bridge is available September 14; details about ordering and the author are available from Goose Lane Editions.