If you could bring a historical figure back to life, not for your own personal amusement but for the good of the world, who would it be? This question seems to have been the mainspring of The Watch, by Dennis Danvers.
His choice was Peter Kropotkin, an activist, scientist, and philosopher whose writings helped bring about the Russian Revolution. Kropotkin died in 1921 at the age of 78. He lived just long enough after the Revolution to see the beginnings of what The Who would later describe as “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
In The Watch, a time traveler from the far future extracts Kropotkin at the moment of his death, lets him keep all his memories but gives him back his vigorous 32-year-old body, and plops him down in Richmond, Virginia, in 1999. (Danvers lives in Richmond, and the novel was published in 2002.)
Kropotkin has no money, but he soon has a job as a dishwasher, a small circle of idealistic young friends, and even a girlfriend. He also meets a couple of other temporally displaced men from earlier in Richmond’s history.
There’s not much of a plot, other than Kropotkin’s growing mistrust of the time traveler who has set up the whole affair. This mistrust is crucial to what happens later. Kropotkin is very concerned that he is being manipulated by the time traveler, an imperturbable fellow named Anchee. As the story goes on, he finds evidence of this manipulation.
What’s interesting about the story is to read the reactions of a committed Russian anarchist to the culture of modern Richmond, a city with a substantial black population, much of it very poor, and an unwavering civic pride in having been, briefly, the capital of the Confederate States of America. Danvers handles Kropotkin’s slightly archaic and sometimes befuddled voice very well; his situation reminded me a bit of the innocent at the center of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, except that in Being There, the main character (at least in the movie — I haven’t read the book) is a dimwit. Kropotkin is formidably bright and articulate.
The fictional Kropotkin’s observations of modern life hit the nail on the head. While I’m a lot more cynical than he is about human nature, I appreciate both his idealism and his activism. While working as a dishwasher, he starts saving wasted food from the restaurant and taking it downtown to feed the homeless. He’s clearly a good person.
The ending of the novel, however, is a disastrous letdown. In order to explain how it fails, I’m going to have to do spoilers. If you think you might want to read it, you may want to skip the rest of this review.
Anchee has given Kropotkin a pocket watch with which, he eventually discovers, he can reverse time and visit Richmond’s past. This neat trick is demonstrated for the reader a couple of times, but the jaunts into the past are brief and not suspenseful. Only at the end does the reason for the pocket watch become clear.
Through a rather unlikely series of events, Kropotkin is arrested and locked in a high-security solitary cell. Because a television down the hall in the guard station is sometimes tuned to news channels, he gets (and we get) to overhear the bizarre and vicious stream of propaganda through which he is portrayed to the public as a terrorist. (In light of the events of the past few years, this segment of the book is eerily prophetic.)
While he is being arrested, he manages to hand off the pocket watch to one of his fellow historically displaced persons, a doctor who died in an infamous prison in Richmond in 1863. The other time-shifted man is an escaped slave from 1800 who died in an abortive slave rebellion. After a few weeks, during which Kropotkin is securely locked up, these other two men figure out how to use the pocket watch to suddenly flood Richmond with thousands of refugees from the past, both slaves fresh off the ship from Africa and sick, starving Union prisoners from the Civil War prison.
This, it appears, was Anchee’s goal all along — to start a revolutionary change in the United States by exposing our horrifying racist past in a very concrete way. The book was written some years before the current controversy over Confederate statues, but a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond figures prominently in the story, and there can be no doubt at all that Danvers has contempt for the statue and all that it stands for, past and present.
After a few weeks in solitary, Kropotkin is miraculously released from his cell. The release is effected by a band of possibly immortal time-traveling cats. We can only guess that Danvers is a cat person, because there’s no possible justification for this injection of cuteness. The cats have no other relevance to the story.
But that’s not the bad part. Here’s the bad part. Kropotkin strolls out of prison, and of course Anchee is waiting for him. He bitterly accuses Anchee of having manipulated everyone like puppets, including Kropotkin’s new girlfriend Rachel. And indeed that’s exactly what Anchee has done. He has told several lies to bring Rachel and Kropotkin together and to connect Kropotkin with his idealistic young friends.
As we might imagine, a dedicated anarchist does not like having his life be controlled by an outside force. To Kropotkin’s way of thinking, Anchee is no better than the State.
Anchee reveals that he did indeed forge the letter that brought Rachel to Richmond. He then asks if Kropotkin would prefer him not to have done any such thing. Without Anchee’s meddling, Anchee explains, none of this would have happened. Rachel would be stuck in Seattle in a job she hates. The minor characters’ lives would be unhappy as well; one of them would have committed suicide by now. And the transformation of the cultural awareness of the United States would never happen, because those thousands of misery-drenched refugees from the past would never arrive in Richmond. Rather than being rescued, they would die in their own time. None of it would ever have happened.
Anchee gives Kropotkin the choice: Tear up the letter and erase all of the events of the story, or let Anchee mail the letter (several years in the past) so that events unfold as they have unfolded through behind-the-scenes manipulation.
Kropotkin tears up the letter.
This is a downer ending. It’s a soul-crushing ending, frankly. Not just because Rachel will never meet Kropotkin, and not just because the tormented slaves and starving Union prisoners won’t have a chance at a new life in the 21st century. That’s bad enough, but the boulder beneath which the novel lies mangled is the fact that Kropotkin made the wrong choice. He put his anarchist principles above the lives of those slaves and prisoners. Rather than set aside his principles in the interest of compassion, he denied them the possibility of new life.
Up to that moment, all of the fictional Kropotkin’s actions have been motivated by compassion for his fellow human beings. But suddenly, when push comes to shove, Danvers turns his hero into a blind man — a rigid and judgmental moral weakling. “This isn’t a revolution!” Kropotkin cries. “The people make a revolution, not some tinhorn god from the future.”
Anchee replies, “The people are greedy swine.” This line is completely out of character for him. It reads very much as Danvers’s attempt to salvage the ending he wanted by giving Kropotkin a more believable motivation. Kropotkin then (in interior monolog) reflects, “He’s shown his true stripes with that line. The revolution means nothing without faith in the people.”
Evidently the fictional Kropotkin feels that he has to cling to his faith, even though that faith will lead to a whole lot more human suffering. We expect that kind of thinking from Christian conservatives, but not from leftists. Kropotkin starts to smell a little like Stalin, in fact.
Possibly Danvers was searching for a way out of a narrative dilemma. The novel is set in Richmond in 1999 — effectively, in the present day — and obviously Richmond has not been inundated by thousands of slaves fresh off the ship in 1800. Danvers may have felt that he had to have Kropotkin stick to his ideals in order not to force the reader to buy an ending that was obviously counter-factual.
Or possibly Danvers intended the ending as a stirring call to social activism. On the final pages Kropotkin is back in prison. He ends his narrative by suggesting that the way to set him free is to throw open the doors of prisons everywhere and let all of the prisoners go free.
Given the appalling rate of incarceration in the United States today, and the extent to which African-American men have been victimized by our “justice” system, that’s a laudable proposal. I mean, we do need to keep a few obvious psychopaths behind bars — Kropotkin is too idealistic about the good in people, and possibly Danvers is too.
But ending the novel this way was a mistake. It reduced Kropotkin’s idealism to a hollow sham. And Kropotkin was at one time a real person. He deserves better.