‘A Woman’s War Against Progress’, by Allan Cameron

Although Allan Cameron’s latest work A Woman’s War Against Progress is, as the author himself defines it, ‘a long novel’, it has a surprisingly fresh ‘Pushkinian’ air about it – with its subtle play of authors, narrators, language, ‘history’ and, to a certain extent, literary games and genre. It suggests within its pages some of the literary devices used by A. S. Pushkin (1799–1837) in his first completed work of prose The Tales of Belkin, 1831, and as readers we are little by little transformed into Pushkin’s ‘curious researchers’ as we seek to make our way into the worlds contained beneath the novel’s ‘surface’. Cameron himself encourages us to be on the alert for the many hidden depths and allusions which his new novel contains: ‘I’d like readers to take time with this book, to put it down and reflect as they navigate the story’ … he advises us. At the outset of this short review, it should be stressed that A Woman’s War Against Progress, would, without any doubt, be a simply excellent volume for group discussion and study in Book Clubs, Literary Associations and many other readers’ / students’ / scholars’ gatherings so that its many layers, insightful ideas, literary allusions and linguistic inventions could be explored, shared and enjoyed at leisure. It contains many important references to Russian and Soviet history, society and culture – names are dropped from time to time, perhaps to encourage the reader be on the alert and to ponder over possible connections the author is inviting us to make. It can be no accident, for example, that on p. 14 Dostoevsky is mentioned as follows: ‘Dostoevsky said that everyone has secrets they don’t admit to themselves’; the reader will doubtless halt at this point and wonder what ‘secrets’ these might be and what ‘secrets’ this work may contain and, additionally, what ‘Dostoevsky’ might signify within the novel itself. Towards the end of Cameron’s work, however, on p. 335, there is a direct reference to Crime and Punishment cited within a short ‘digression’ about the novel as genre and its main functions. On p. 133 the reference to the ‘Odessa Jew’ may possibly make the reader stop and consider the enigmatic fictional world of Isaac Babel’ (1894–1940), for example, with all its ‘secrets’ and complex literary devices. From pp. 263–69 the interpolated tale ‘The Parable of Malice and the Impossibility of Unlearning Things’ is introduced – more will be noted below about the intrusion of these tales and parables below – and it can be no accident, perhaps, that Andrei and Masha (brother and sister in Chekhov’s drama Three Sisters (1901) and both unhappily married) are the protagonists of this section: ‘Andrei felt indebted to Masha. She was the one who revealed the fundamental misunderstandings in his marriage’ (p. 263). Here the alert reader might pause and recall the challenging ending of Chekhov’s play, with its direct question about the meaning of life: ‘… if only one might know.’ This section also presents the intervention of a chorus as a commentary on the text which lends a special almost mythical dimension to it. Many more examples could be cited and the immense care with which this work has been crafted would lead us to suppose that such references are no accident but that they serve to create a meaningful undertext which will be referred to in more detail below. 

It goes without saying, of course, that Cameron’s new work is also highly recommended for individual reading … and it tells a very engrossing and original story with a pace and intensity that make it a very enjoyable work indeed! The volume itself has a very pleasing appearance with an inset picture of Yurii Gagarin behind the front cover and a photograph of J. F. Kennedy and Mr Khrushchev inside the back cover … a hint of surprises and contrasts contained within, perhaps …

To examine briefly, in the first instance, the themes, characters, locations and timeframes as these are expressed in this work – as the title suggests, the main theme of the novel is ‘progress’ in its many facets, both positive and negative. The characters have been invented by the author – they are part of a fictional minority people (Surelikud) in Siberia and as the title also leads us to believe, the main protagonist is a woman, Rahväema, whose important life journey begins in 1916. Her adventures are a dictation to her scribe, a much younger woman and here the whole issue of the reliability of what is presented to us, and the interplay of narrators is set before the reader. As Pushkin’s above-mentioned Tales of Belkin contained, among other things, a scathing critique of ills in his own nineteenth- century Russian society, Cameron notes that in his novel ‘… I am trying to demonstrate how completely dysfunctional and mendacious our own societies are’. Right from the outset, then, this novel draws us into its own special created space and into the shifts of its fragmented time; it contains fascinating musings on history, philosophy, religion, politics and culture – its sweep and variety cannot, naturally, be fully demonstrated within the confines of this short review. Indeed, after a first reading one feels compelled to start all over again to absorb detail and description and to take more time to think about the many questions it poses! The work fascinates with its many literary references, some direct and some hidden and, as has already been suggested, this novel appears to have its own vibrant and intriguing undertext into which the attentive reader is invited to make his/her way, or, to use Cameron’s words again, ‘… to navigate’ his/her own route through its pages. 

As noted above, a series of parables and tales have been interpolated, almost in Gogolian fashion – indeed, Gogol is one of the many literary references to be found in the work – into the fabric of the main novel. (On p. 136, for example, there is a very clever play on Dead Souls but transforming the title to ‘dead minds’ as part of the discussion contained in that section ….) These inserted pieces and/or digressions force the reader to pause and to reflect upon what these might signify at a deeper level and how they might contribute to the narrative flow of the entire novel. Their titles both intrigue and tantalize – from ‘The Parable of the Socialist Realist Woman’, pp. 181–84, ‘The Parable of the Two Kindly Men’, pp. 200–05, to ‘The Tank’, pp. 193–95, to ‘When Travel Teaches It Does So Most Powerfully – a Parable’, pp. 291–300.

Only one small error was noted on p. 250 and that being the incorrect spelling of Loyola in the reference to St Ignatius of Loyola but this brief reference to the Jesuit Order again will force an attentive reader to stop and think of the Order’s presence at the Court of Catherine the Great, for example and, of course, back to Dostoevsky’s supposed mistrust and dislike of the Jesuits – culminating, possibly, in the figure of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’.

As was stated at the beginning of this short review, this is a novel of great profundity and perhaps Neil Ascherson’s description of it as a ‘river of a novel’ is most apt. From the outset it engrosses the reader, as we move into its highly original created world; indeed, it encourages us to think beyond what is presented on the page in front of us and to probe and experience its possible undertext. Within the scope of this present work all these depths cannot, naturally, be explored or revealed but one might turn to the often-quoted description of Pechorin, the hero of Yurii Lermontov’s great nineteenth-centuryprose work Hero of our Times (1840) (Pechorin’s surname is, of course, associated with a great river) and suggest that one of the greatest virtues of Cameron’s work is that, like Pechorin’s enigmatic and profound character, this novel too makes us think … This is indeed an outstanding prose creation that challenges the reader at so many levels and it defies any trite and easy responses to the many difficult questions it raises. Allan Cameron is indeed to be congratulated on this great achievement. 

A Woman’s War Against Progress is published by Vagabond Voices

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Dr Margaret Tejerizo

Dr Margaret Tejerizo is an Affiliate of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow

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