‘Only ideas are perfect. People never are,’ Joel would tell her. ‘When you’ve lived a bit longer, you’ll be more forgiving.’ But Rosa had scorned these attempts to modify her wrath. For a person as deeply offended by injustice and inequity as she was – as committed to changing the world – a degree of ruthlessness was imperative, she felt. Her usual response to her father had been to quote Lenin’s defence of Bolshevik tactics: ‘Is regard for humanity possible in such an unheard-of ferocious struggle? By what measure do you measure the quantity of necessary and unnecessary blows in a fight?’
Oh dear. Now, I must first explain that I have a knee-jerk reaction to Americans like Rosa’ character – for a while, I’ve even pretended as if they don’t exist at all, which is, of course, completely untrue. It’s as if some well-intentioned American decided to quote a passage from the Q’uran to Apostate at a party – there’s a sense of “hey moron, this is MY lived experience, not YOUR lived experience. Piss off, why don’t you.” (Without putting words in Apostate’s mouth, I somehow imagine her reaction to the aforementioned scenario would be similar to my reaction upon encountering people like Rosa)
In my family, the harshest words of criticism were always reserved for Lenin, not Stalin. There are several reasons for this. First of all, the symbolism of the gruesome murder of the royal family. Then there is the belief that without a Lenin, we would never have had a Stalin in the first place, that Lenin was the foundation for everything. Finally, and this is the part that I think few people know about (I could be wrong), those Bolshevik tactics that Lenin defended? He enjoyed them. Something that Western radicals rarely quote is Lenin’s famous attempt at humour – “We’re not shooting enough of those little professors!” Haw haw. The diminutive Lenin uses for professors, meaning, of course, the academic establishment, is insulting in a uniquely Russian way, and hard to translate, but I’m sure you can imagine what it sounds like. Lenin was gleeful, absolutely gleeful, at the violence he presided over.
Having now finished the excellent Believers, I also believe in something.
I believe that Lenin would have taken one look at earnest young Rosa and her lawyer father, one glance with those beady little eyes of his, and sent them before a firing squad without a second thought. They lived in Greenwich Village, for one thing. I don’t know if a power-tripping murderous psychopath really needs any other evidence. I’m not entirely sure, but a part of me thinks that Zoë Heller’s narrator might agree with me.
Of course, I don’t believe that anyone owns Lenin or his words. Many different people have believed in him over the decades. Babushkas and dedushkas with trembling hands and heads have stood for hours to pay their respects at his tomb. Even now, an atmosphere of solemnity prevails inside. You’re not allowed to talk or giggle or take pictures. Like it or not, Lenin is a legacy onto himself.
I’ve always thought about the fact that he never wanted to be embalmed or to be placed on public display like that. I think there’s something very sad about the way his wishes were disrespected. Lenin re-wrote the rules and that came back to bite him on the ass. Well, the ass attached to his dead body, anyway. Haw freaking haw. Though I am glad they haven’t put his body in the ground yet. Such a gesture would break the heart of many aging, infirm people, and I think their hearts have already been broken enough.
I think if people can take away something meaningful and good from Lenin, then that’s great. However, it seems to me that Rosa’s character takes the worst that Lenin ever had to offer – the idea that a horror film-worthy struggle ostensibly done for the sake of worker’s rights, a struggle that put the New Boss, same as the Old Boss, into power, was great and good. As the book unfolds, Rosa abandons this path and begins gravitating toward Orthodox Judaism, and to Heller’s credit, Rosa’s experience with religion cannot be described in singular terms. On one hand, it’s bloody awful and you have to wonder if Rosa is simply replacing one rigid dogma with another. But you can also allow for the possibility that she has found something both complex and profound, a faith that doesn’t just challenge her but also feeds her.
Upon examining my own bout of wrath when encountering the passage quoted above, I was once again confronted with just how different things can look from various angles. There is a certain strange beauty in the inability to compromise all vantage points. It’s like a kaleidoscope image that refuses to properly arrange itself, the little bits of glass cracking under the pressure with an oddly satisfying crunch.
And what could be crunchier than a deliciously good novel? Zoë Heller has messed with my mind, and I rather love her for it.