Pravda begins with an odd, frantic conversation between Maria and Gabriel, mother and son, the former in St. Petersburg, Russia, the latter in London. It's an atypical mother-son conversation, interspersed with calls to "inhabit yourself fully" and "to be fierce in the face of all the cowardice you see around you."
Maria is not well. A passionate Marxist in her youth, she has witnessed her health — and her ideology — wither with time. There is a desperation in her voice that impels Gabriel to catch the next flight to St. Petersburg, only to find her dead. This is the template on which Edward Docx starts his book, a fascinating, superb read.
Soon, we are introduced to other characters: Gabriel's twin sister, Isabella, a PR manager for a New York media firm, and their estranged father, Nicholas, a failed painter prone to grandiose ideas about the artist's place in the world. Then there are Arkady, a gifted but penniless pianist, and his heroin addict roommate, Henry. Something in Maria's youth points to a connection with Arkady, and Docx takes his time to flesh it out.
In the meanwhile, he gives us a novel rich in scope and description. Spanning four cities, Pravda is a biting commentary on the state of the world today. This is brought out most tellingly in the contrast between Gabriel and Arkady, two men fated to discover the bond between them.
While Gabriel has typical upper-class concerns about juggling two lovers, Arkady faces the prospect of his talent going to waste. Via its atmospheric, astute portrayals, the novel illustrates how seemingly minor decisions can make the difference between glory and failure. Where Gabriel is too intelligent to not concede the weightlessness of his life, it is Arkady and Henry who live "real" lives, governed not "by exercise of the mind but of the body."
Pravda, Docx's second novel, closely missed out on a Booker nomination last year. A reader can only rue the Booker committee's decision. But take heart, Docx is here to play long innings.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.