208 pages • Viking • March 10, 2012 [PB]
I heard Tom Bullough read from Konstantin at Damian Barr’s magnificent Shoreditch House Literary Salon. I was struck by the music of his prose, and how it made me feel the sense of wonder that the protagonist, Kostya, experiences in the world around him. The year is 1868, and Kostya is being raced by horse and carriage through the snowy roads to Nizhny Novgorod. “He clung to his seat and squinted against the flying snow and the freezing wind, while the horses poured steam like a locomotive and the bell in the arch between the shafts danced and told the forest, the long straight track and any other peasants unwise enough not to have collected sufficient firewood back in the autumn, that this was a post-sledge and would be travelling at speed.” Kostya pushes the driver to go yet faster, and in this one scene the emotions and the ideas that power that book are all at work. It was an astute choice, and a magnificent piece of writing.
Konstantin opens in 1867 and tells the story of how the young boy Kostya grows up to become Konstantin Tsiolosky, the father of Russian rocketry and astronautics (1857-1935). At the age of 10, Kostya catches scarlet fever, which leaves him almost deaf, and it is with this incident that Bullough opens the story. There is a childlike wonder to the writing in the early pages. It has a lyrical quality that from the opening sentence conveys the curiosity that drives Kostya, and his raw confidence in that curiosity. “Everyone, it seemed, had some portent of doom to report – although to Kostya, standing at the foot of the steps with his toboggan, the city looked very much the same as it had every other winter he could remember.” His sense of wonder, and his dreams, are powered by optimism. Kostya invents a listening device, an ear trumpet, to combat his hearing problems, rather than let it hold him back. It is that unwavering buoyancy Bullough deftly communicates.
In a touching section, Kostya’s mother talks to him about the sun, “a big, grand character, fat and important”. The sun, her sun, is the power of life itself, the power of God, and it dies each night only to be resurrected the following morning. He learns the magic of the sun from his mother, and then at the age of 15 he learns the science of the sun from his teacher. “Light,” he is taught, “requires 8 minutes and 17 seconds to flash from the sun to the earth,” and “an express train going at the rate of about 50 versts an hour, leaving the Earth on the 1st of January, 1866, would not arrive at the Sun at the year 2213, nearly 347 years after the day of its departure”. His eyes widen at this. He searches through books to understand it, only understanding half of the words yet striving to understand the whole. Like so many great minds, Konstantin is bored by school and he does not do well. He teaches himself, and with the aid of the librarian Nikolai Fedorov he learns what he wants to know. And thus the imaginative magic and the practical possibility start to come together for the teenage Konstantin.
It is this union that creates the thinker who would go on to become the founder of the Russian space programme. The real achievement of Konstantin is how Bullough pieces this process together. It is not an historical novel so much as a novel about the opening of a young mind to a world of wonders and possibilities. And as such it is punctuated with moments of beauty and of fascination.
Konstantin is an unconventional, impressionistic novel. It is a book about dreams, and what it means to be different from the pack in order to follow those dreams. And therein lies its power, and its beauty.