Fleeing the oppression of Tsarist Russia by way of Siberia and Shanghai, the determined young revolutionary Artem Samsurov arrives in Brisbane in 1911. The émigré adopts an Australian name (‘Tom’), takes a menial job ‘lugging carcases of sheep and beef onto ships’, falls for the comely wife of a local lawyer (‘the tigress, Hope Mockridge’) and, as one would expect from a loyal follower of Lenin, soon begins to sow the seeds of revolution in his new home. He publishes a political newspaper, leads strikes and marches, and endures imprisonment, waiting, with the impregnable faith of the devout, for the day when ‘the great truth would break on the workers, and they’d no longer ask for crumbs but for the whole table’. When the revolution happens, he and an Australian friend, Paddy Dykes, return to Russia in time to witness the storming of the Winter Palace and the inaugural day of Bolshevik rule.
The story is shared by two narrators. The first, expansive section, which takes place almost entirely in Australia, is told by Samsurov, having supposedly been rendered into English from the original Russian in 1953. Thomas Keneally’s impersonation of translated prose, artfully achieved, is studded with strange poeticisms. A