Every so often, you come across a book of nonfiction that is more gripping in its plot and richer in its understanding of human beings than a thousand novels put together. One such book is Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station.
The book, which was published in 1940, is called a classic and is described as a history of socialism. For these two reasons, I avoided it for years, assuming that it would be stupendously boring. What a mistake that turned out to be.
This book is an intellectual thriller — a cliffhanger set in an underground world of revolutionaries and hunted men. It tells the story of a group of scholars on a quest for forbidden knowledge — a secret embedded in human history. From the time of the Enlightenment, Wilson tells us, some radical thinkers became convinced that human beings — and not Divine Providence — shaped their own history. If you studied history — the rise and fall of kingdoms, and the expansion and contraction of economies — you would find that behind the apparent chaos, there was a meaning, written out in code. And if this secret pattern, this cabala, were deciphered, it would tell you how to construct a new society — one that was based on justice, equality and freedom.
To the Finland Station is the story of the men who tried to break the code in human history — men like the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico; the French historian Jules Michelet; the Russian nihilist Mikhail Bakunin; and above all, it is the story of Karl Marx, the founder of communism. In some ways, To the Finland Station reminds me of Dostoevski's novel The Possessed — which is also the story of a group of revolutionaries who want to create a better society. Like Dostoevski, Wilson has a real gift for physical descriptions, vivid anecdotes and drama. And he brings this group of eccentric, persecuted, visionary men to life so vividly: You are made to admire their compassion for the poor; to cringe at their fanaticism; and to wonder at their perseverance in the face of poverty, persecution and exile.
You do not have to be sympathetic to socialism, as Edmund Wilson was, to fall in love with this book. To the Finland Station is, ultimately, a celebration of the power of ideas. I find in this book a sense of religious awe at the mystery of human ideas: how a strange, compelling thought is born, in the secrecy of libraries, to an eccentric; how it survives persecution and scorn; how it is transmitted, on the margins of society, from generation to generation; and how, at the unlikeliest of moments, it can seize the entire world and reshape it — for better or for worse.
Aravind Adiga is the author of The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2008. His new novel, Last Man in the Tower will be published by Knopf in 2011.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.