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Penguin Books, London, 2012, 208 pp.
Writing a fictionalized life of someone famous is a dangerous endeavour – even if you have a clear idea of where to draw the line, you still put yourself at the mercy of those readers who want to be able to distinguish between history and fiction. Your critics are likely to judge both your imagination and your treatment of known facts. Fortunately for Tom Bullough, the hero of his novel is famous enough to attract wide attention, yet his life has never been textbook material – certainly not in Britain, where “Konstantin” was recently published.
Many will, of course, be familiar with the fact that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the pioneer of space exploration who managed to prove that a man is capable of leaving Earth, “this cradle of our infancy.” In the novel these words are spoken by Nikolai Fedorov, a humble librarian whom young Konstantin meets in Moscow. Fedorov, a much more obscure figure, wrote on cosmic philosophy, a forerunner of cosmism – a movement that gained popularity in Russia in the early 20th century. That Tsiolkovsky was also interested in these occult ideas has contributed less to his popular image than his works in aerodynamics.
In fact, the majority of readers probably imagine Tsiolkovsky as a crazy scientist devoted to his studies, and they are probably partly right. Without overplaying the first bit, Bullough concentrates on the image of a man of science who differs from most of his contemporaries in his desire to transcend the boundaries of knowledge. One of the best-known photographs of Tsiolkovsky pictures him sitting at a desk, his ear trumpet at the ready. The trumpet is a constant presence in the book, which traces the early life of Konstantin, starting from the winter of 1867 when the ten-year-old meets a wolf in a forest, “the silence in its fire-colored eyes” becoming a metaphor for the silence that stretches before the boy. He loses his hearing after being ill with scarlet fever; this handicap, according to Tsiolkovsky's autobiography, remained the bane of his life – but also gave him the determination to pursue his studies. Laughed at, unable to fit in at school or to continue his education, Konstantin gets a rough deal from the start. After the death of his mother, the youth goes to Moscow and lives there on almost nothing, reading books in a public library and spending what little money he has to buy equipment for his experiments.
We watch the long-haired young man in broken spectacles, a shabby coat and ragged trousers, careful not to frighten people with his ear trumpet, become more and more passionate about the possibility of space travel – back in the late 1870s, when a journey from Vyatka to Moscow took a few days. Fedorov, who tries to take Konstantin under his wing, is aware of his aspirations. “Did you have any further thoughts about harnessing the planet's centrifugal force?” he asks his young friend and, on learning that the problem has not been solved yet, smiles before mounting the stairs: “We shall use the conventional means of ascent.”
After the hardships of Moscow, Tsiolkovsky goes to Borovsk to teach at a local school, a profession he will practice till his old age. Prerevolutionary provincial Russia in Bullough's description is, as he himself admits, a stylized version of his native Wales. For all the amount of research the author has done he does not set out to write a historical book, so some elements of a picture postcard can be forgiven. One thing that grates with the reader is the author's use of Russian words that have perfectly normal equivalents in English. All these “vershoks” and “versts” jostle together with yards and miles, covered in “kibitkas,” “droshkies” or fur-lined “troikas” driven by “izvozchiki.”
Still, the “Russianization” is an easy target – as easy as Kostya's ear trumpet was for those who wanted to make fun of him. What Bullough wants to do, often succeeding, is paint a portrait of a man who is not fully of this world – which happens to be the late 19th century Russia – and try to understand what drives his passion for knowledge. Some images in the book stick in the reader’s memory, from “the rich, organic swell of books” filling Konstantin's nostrils on entering the library to the protagonist’s baby daughter cradled in his arms as he explains the principles of reactive motion until she falls asleep “somewhere between Earth and the stars.” The problem of reaching orbital speed was solved a hundred years after Tsiolkovsky's birth, when the first sputnik went up in 1957; fifty-five years later it is still impossible to define what exactly makes a scientist. In attempting to answer this question, “Konstantin” takes us one step closer to the truth.
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