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Random acts of despair
Random Acts of Heroic Love - Danny Scheinmann
Member Name: brokenangel
Random Acts of Heroic Love - Danny Scheinmann
Date: 12/07/12, updated on 25/05/13 (74 review reads)
Advantages: interesting premises, some engaging characters
Disadvantages: a little predictable, some may find the central character unsympathetic
Despite the title, I suspect that there is very little that is random about this novel, since Scheinmann spent six years of his life honing this, his first published work. Perhaps the time scale is a consequence of the semi-autobiographical nature of the central stories: one tale is based on Scheinmann's personal history; the other is a fabrication loosely based on an epic journey made by his grandfather during the First World War. Both are tales of love and loss, obsession and despair. Whether or not it has helped Scheinmann to achieve any kind of catharsis, writing the novel has led to a very positive reaction from readers and reviewers alike. 'Random Acts of Heroic Love' made it into the Richard and Judy Book Club and gained fulsome praise from reviewers, although, pleasingly, the editors have decided to allow the book to speak for itself, instead of slathering it with sound-bites. So what did I think?
-- First impressions / hopes --
The title intrigued me, as did the image on the front cover: a man, dressed for icy weather, strides through a white landscape; superimposed over this is the image of a young woman's face, eyes averted from the traveller, her visage somehow expressing stoic sadness. The man's garb and setting led me to believe that this was part of the story of the soldier who, having survived fighting in the Great War, struggles for three years through the Siberian wilderness to join his childhood sweetheart.
The premise is an exciting one, suggesting an action packed journey and, hopefully, a romantic resolution. What will happen to Moritz along the way? And, if he is able to survive the journey, will his young love still be waiting? I anticipated dramatic plotlines and wickedly hoped for a sad ending, to see how the author would handle it. (Happy endings are rather easy and, dare I say it, often a bit dull; I sometimes prefer a bit of well-managed anguish. Although it obviously wouldn't work at the end of, say, anything by Jane Austen, or a Mills and Boon.) Moritz would be battle toughened, weary, but a hero to root for.
I found it slightly surprising then that the novel opens with another story. In 1992, a young man called Leo Deakin discovers that his girlfriend has died in a bus accident while they were travelling together in a foreign country. Although he does not initially remember what has happened, or even where he is, once the pieces begin to come together Leo is absorbed by his feelings of guilt. As time passes, Leo refuses to move on. He becomes obsessed by capturing random acts of love and tears pages from library books in order to create a journal of 'love'. He dives into unsuitable, meaningless relationships and the world of physics, befriending a lecturer with unusual views on the nature of love. In short, he becomes stuck, fixed in place by a random tragic event.
Perhaps he sounds like a sympathetic character - I'm sure that he is a sympathetic character - yet somehow, although Leo's position is worse than Moritz's (in the sense that Eleni is dead), I found Leo intensely irritating. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to draw solace from his friends or family, Leo loses interest in his post graduate work and, in a memorably mad moment, begins to pair up leaves. Perhaps my response reflects little more than my own lack of experience in this kind of grief; I've lost people I'm close to, but never a partner. My impatience with Leo is quite possibly a result of my own personality, but I really couldn't warm to him as a character. The notebook he keeps (which is presented in appropriately doodled-up form between chapters) is a mish mash of pretentious quotations and notes about how animals mate, as if the elaborate dating rituals of birds or elephants can teach him how to bear his loss.
It was quite a relief to join Moritz, who speaks in the first person and quickly establishes a compelling narrative:
'Ah there you are. I'm glad. I've got a story to tell you. Come closer, that's it, right up to my bed. Don't be shy. Bring the chair right up. It's all right, I'm not contagious. You can rest your feet on it if you like.'
Although he is speaking to his young son, the bed bound and dying old man captures the reader easily when he asks us to 'imagine a fast clean river flowing through a dense forest'. Unlike Leo, who is absorbed by death, Moritz celebrates life, even as he waits to die, hunched in a dirty trench and sheltered by only a sandbag. He recalls the taste of fresh bread, the feel of fire-warmed underwear against his skin, and the scrunch of autumn leaves underfoot. Moritz launches into his personal tale and enthrals both his son, who never speaks, and the reader. His story contains loss, danger and humour, especially when he is forced to team up with a man named Kiraly, a bitter, complaining man (who reminds me of Leo, if he were given the opportunity to be cruel). Despite their differences, Kiraly and Moritz are able to work together and their final parting contains a genuine sadness. I enjoyed reading about their interaction and felt that it was consistently believable.
In contrast, Leo decides to 'let [his friends] rot' when they try to challenge his bathing in guilt and sadness. He moves into lodgings and begins an affair with a woman who ultimately revolts him. Can Leo ever let go of Eleni? Will he ever want to? These are the questions I should have wanted to ask, but I didn't, because I didn't believe that Leo's grief was about Eleni. Leo's grief is about Leo. Leo has been bereaved. Leo is alone. There is very little sense of Eleni in the novel; she is simply the justification for Leo's indulgent retreat from the world. This may be overly harsh, but this is how I felt when I was reading these sections of the story. In fact, I found that I was skimming these sections impatiently so that I could return to the 'main' storyline with Moritz.
-- Linking the stories --
The blurb promises that the 'hidden connections' between the two men and their stories will be revealed in a 'stunning climax'. However, the connection between the two is easy enough to guess quite early on, and certainly didn't stun me - or any of the other readers in my book group. In fact, the ending as a whole, while parts of it are certainly very moving, is largely predictable. I actually found myself wishing that a certain event wouldn't happen as I felt that it would render the conclusion of Leo's story too facile - but it did, and it was. After struggling to cope with his feelings throughout the novel, Leo's final situation allows him to almost sidestep the issue of grieving. I cannot say more without revealing the ending, but I do wish that Scheinmann had not taken what I cannot help thinking of as the easy way out, for him as a writer and Leo as a character. My response to the conclusion of Moritz's story is very similar; after a hiccup, there is a fairly predictable ending, although I suppose that if he is being true to history, I cannot really blame the writer! Suffice it to say that, despite the undercurrent of loss and longing that inevitably pervades the novel, the endings are suitably packaged to please most audiences.
-- Conclusions --
The tale of Moritz Daniecki's trek through Russia to join his childhood sweetheart was genuinely engaging and well told. The sections describing Leo's bereavement were less interesting and frequently resulted in me feeling irritated by Leo's apparent intention to wrap himself in grief forever. Although this is a personal response and would not necessarily be endured by a more patient reader, I am aware that many readers have felt similarly, or at the very least that the story about Moritz does not need to be twinned with Leo's tale. It might have resulted in a shorter novel, but the storyline is 'weighty' enough to stand alone.
Overall, I think this would make an excellent read for all the romantics out there; grim realists (such as myself) may be slightly disappointed. However, despite finding Leo so irritating, I feel that the novel was well worth reading - especially if you skim over Leo's sections!
Summary: A tale of despair entertwined with a tale of hope.