Novelist Breaks New Ground

Welsh Books Council

Novelist Breaks New Ground - 15 December 2008
Novelist Breaks New Ground

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is the background to  Petrograd,  a new Welsh-language novel by Wiliam Owen Roberts.

In contrast to his previous historical novels  Paradwys (Paradise)  and  Y Pla (The Plague),  which was translated into English and other languages, these events act merely as a backdrop to  Petrograd. Instead, the novel concentrates on its rich, aristocratic characters, and on telling the story from the white army’s perspective.

We follow Alyosha and her two cousins, Margarita and Larissa, as the cataclysmic events change their lives, and the lives of their families, in a way they could never have imagined. The characters are stretched to the limit as they face exile, the red army and the Cheka, and each of them is forced to sacrifice their values and their morality in order to survive.

Wiliam Owen Roberts said, "The novel’s about how people’s lives can change. People’s lives are always up and down aren’t they, but sometimes things happen, like a revolution, which genuinely change your life."

We are drawn into a world of monied luxury where it’s possible to take everything for granted, and where the future seems so clear and comfortable. But as millions of Russians lose every sense of reality as they know it, so too do Alyosha, Margarita and Larissa, thus facing a very bleak future in a world that’s out of control - exile or even death. "They represent the people on the losing side. As history has marched on, so too have these three," explains the author. "In the first part of the novel, you may think ‘that their lives are going to pan out one way’, and then very suddenly they find their lives are going to be totally different. Their fate, as such, is completely turned on its head."

The author has chosen to lead us on this uncertain path on purpose, he says, avoiding the communist side of the story and sticking to the side of the story which is possibly heard less often. "I was determined not to tell the story of the side that won. Probably because I’m a Welshman, writing from the point of view of people who have been conquered and meddled with by history is far more interesting than the ones who won. And the problems of people like that are so much worse. Because our situation is one of a lack of power, it offers so much more potential."

For that reason, according to the author, this novel stands out more than his previous work. Having made his mark as a postmodernist author, he believes he is breaking new ground with this novel: "This is a realistic novel, it’s quite straight and that’s a new thing for me. I did the postmodernist stuff about twenty-five years ago, and now I’ve moved to realism, whereas people usually start with realism and go on to postmodernism," he explains.

This wasn’t entirely deliberate, according to the author, but rather a result of working in a different way from usual: "I planned this one differently. With other novels, I’ve constructed a plot, but this time I’ve gone after characters, and worked out the story through their life stories. I’ve concentrated on the experience of the individual, and avoided the big picture. You see a cataclysmic event such as the revolution, but it happens off-stage so to speak, and you see the affect it has on a group of characters."

Wiliam Owen Roberts has been interested in Russia and its complex history for many years. At university he studied Chekov and Gorky, and he has studied the work of Dostoyevsky extensively. He has also taken an interest in Marxist philosophy for many years, and has travelled to eastern Europe many times: "I‘ve always had an interest in this part of the world, and that interest has grown over the years. I just wanted to get to grips with the history, since Russia has been through all that..."

And even though  Petrograd i s set many thousands of miles away, way back in the past, a very contemporary theme runs through the novel. "So many people cross borders in the world – people put their lives in danger; exile is a perpetual theme," explains the author. Little by little, we see how being separated from their beloved Russia affects the characters in the novel. "There are references throughout the novel to the state of being in exile, how having to up sticks and go effects someone, and how you come to terms with that."

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