Last April Weidenfeld & Nicolson paid a six-figure sum for the world publishing rights for the literary debut, The Breaking of Eggs, by Jim Powell. I don’t know whether the six figures was closer to $US100,000 or $900,000 but having spent a day or two reading it last weekend, I reckon they got a bargain.
Powell starts his story with restraint and a fair degree of dry humour. Enough to whet the appetite for something that is so much more than another quirky novel with an unusual setting for this is really a book about the barriers and restraints of a life led in principle.
The year is 1991 and 61-year-old Feliks Zhukowski, an expatriate Pole who lives in Paris, finds himself in a crumbling world. Having escaped the war and joined the Communist party in France, he has lived his life virtually alone, eking out a living with his travel guides to eastern bloc countries, countries which reflect his own hopes and ideals. Now the unthinkable has happened. The Berlin Wall has come down, and an American company wants to take over and modernize his precious publications.
So what is it like to look around and suddenly discover that everything that you once held dear and true is suddenly dissolving? This is a question that vast numbers of people must have wrestled with in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The question leads Zhukowski to revisit his past, to re-evaluate the circumstances under which his mother sent him and his brother away in August of 1939, to re-engage with a woman who at one time held the secret to a life of shared happiness, to pick apart his long held beliefs about life, love, politics and well, everything. And what does he discover? That truth is not holding a set of values but experiencing things for oneself. That rationality is the product not of something neutral, but of our own experiences and emotions.
Powell’s special talent is to shrink major themes of the twentieth century to the canvas of just one figure, for through Zhukowski we see history writ small. At the same time, we get an exploration of the nature of connection, home, and exile. High-minded stuff but don’t be put off. This novel is not polemic. These questions bubble up through the very engaging story of Zhukowski’s shedding of his past.
Its publishers are likening The Breaking of Eggs to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian with touches of the film Goodbye Lenin. Fair enough. Bernard Schlink’s The Reader gets a mention too. It put me in mind of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Be that as it may, The Breaking of Eggs is really all its own. It is going to appeal to fans of both commercial and literary fiction and we are all going to be hearing a lot more about it. And if you are in a reading group – look no further. It will keep the discussion going for hours!
The Breaking of Eggs is available to pre-order for delivery after June 1.