Tales of young tyrants have ring of fate in Anton Piatigorsky's The Iron Bridge

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The Iron Bridge
By Anton Piatigorsky. Goose Lane, 268 pp, softcover

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There’s something here, but what it is hovers just out of reach of the reader. And, arguably, of the author as well.

Playwright Anton Piatigorsky’s first story collection concerns formative incidents in the lives of six future dictators: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Rafael Trujillo, and Adolf Hitler. Rich in historical detail, these texts blur the line between fact and speculation in a thoroughly intriguing manner.

Each also poses a big “what if?” to history: what if one of Hitler’s teenage dreams (a winning lottery ticket, a smile from the tall and beautiful Stefanie) had come true? What if Pol Pot had enjoyed his first sexual encounter, rather than feeling puritanically ashamed?

How closely Piatigorsky’s plots mirror historical truth is uncertain, although he cites a number of scholarly biographies in his credits. This play between the known and the unknown is another intellectually stimulating aspect of The Iron Bridge. Unfortunately for the author, we do know the later facts. Speculation won’t change the death toll or the countries ruined. And it’s hard to determine Piatigorsky’s intent. By all accounts he’s an extremely gifted playwright, and it’s possible that these stories will fuel future theatrical explorations; in that case, though, they might better have remained in his notebook. As literature, they’re surprisingly lifeless. Both enigmatic and dull, they’re written in a determinedly flat and affectless fashion that, one supposes, is meant to convey a sense of ironic detachment or cool nonjudgmentalism.

They’re not moral fables, that’s for certain. More like testimony to the mysterious workings of implacable fate.

Again, this could have been fruitful terrain. And Piatigorsky has to be commended for his courage in tackling subjects that are bound to outrage many readers’ sensitivities. Cumulatively, though, these stories simply reinforce the banality of evil, and the ongoing impossibility of fully understanding the huge crimes that indelibly stained the past century.

“What if?” is certainly worth asking. Alas, the lingering question left by The Iron Bridge is “Why?”

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