The People’s Train

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by Janet Hancock

This is a fictionalised biography of Artem Sergiev, prisoner in pre-revolutionary Russia who fled to Australia in 1911. In Thomas Keneally’s hands the protagonist is Artem Samsurov, hero of the 1905 uprising, who flees a Siberian camp, settles in Brisbane, becomes a prominent figure in the growing trades union movement and is twice imprisoned in spite of the intervention of wealthy lawyer and Communist sympathiser Hope Mockridge, with whom he has an affair. Disillusioned by factional in-fighting, government opposition and the realisation that Australia is not a workers’ paradise, Samsurov returns to Russia in 1917 following the abdication of the Tsar.

The first part of the book is narrated by Samsurov, a workmanlike journal detailing Brisbane workers’ partisan disputes, social events and the racism faced by the city’s considerable Russian community. Interleaved with this is his escape from Siberia via Japan and China to Australia, which had me reaching for the atlas, enthralled. In Part 2 the narrator is Paddy Dykes, an Australian journalist who accompanies Samsurov to Russia in time for the heady months culminating in the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917.

The emotional pull of the book is slight, and I found the absence of speech marks a distraction. The book’s strength and fascination lies in its integrity and convincing detail, leaving the reader thinking, ‘Yes, this is how it must have been.’ The relationship between Dykes and Samsurov’s sister I found particularly touching; and the few hours before the assault on the Winter Palace: the uncertainty, disagreements, determination not to besmirch the revolution by casual brutality, versus rough justice meted out to people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The author hints he may continue the adventures of Samsurov, Dykes and their comrades through and beyond the civil war. I hope so.