The story Miller tells in “Independence Square” is a double helix of espionage and regret that winds around the Orange Revolution that shook Ukraine in late 2004. Having covered that crisis for the Economist, Miller knows its byzantine details, but he also acknowledges how opaque the country’s modern struggles remain for most readers. His novel begins with a helpful note that outlines the basic events of the revolution before spinning his story “in the resulting gaps” of that history. The result is a tense, private tale set against the Orange Revolution but evoking the whole complicated enterprise of spycraft and nation-building.
Short but complex, the novel runs along two time frames about 13 years apart. The first covers those tumultuous weeks at the end of 2004 when protesters flooded Kiev’s Independence Square after the corrupt presidential election of Viktor Yanukovych. Miller conveys a rich understanding of the calculus of protest: the relative value of beatings and killings, depending on the victims, the symbols, the TV coverage. He’s particularly acerbic when portraying Western journalists dropping by to package this unruly situation into neat narratives for the folks back home. “The higher the stakes and more imminent the carnage,” he notes, “the more inexpert the commentary became.” One particularly obnoxious correspondent, dressed in “war-zone chic,” keeps prodding the diplomatic experts to agree to wrongheaded analysis “that would make more sense to our readers.”
But beneath those simplistic summaries on the mainstream news, Miller spins the chaotic exuberance of the scene, the musicians playing, the tents multiplying, everyone drunk on an elixir of hope and fear — “a carnival held in a dragon’s maw.” The crowd swells, assuming its inflating mass is proof of its rightness, its invincibility. The government forces appear nervous and outnumbered, an imbalance that could shift instantly if a shot is fired or a rumor explodes. Everyone’s listening to “the sonic boom of a nation escaping its history.”
We watch this incendiary event largely from the point of view of staff members in the British embassy, who are serving as the West’s eyes on the ground. Everyone knows where Britain’s sympathies lie, but the embassy wants to maintain a semblance of impartiality, counseling all sides to remain calm, respect the rule of law, work toward a peaceful resolution, etc., etc.
Miller’s protagonist is Simon Davey — “a good man in a crisis” — a career diplomat from London who fancies he can play three-dimensional chess on the world stage. Trailing an office scandal in Tel Aviv, Davey sees the situation in Ukraine as his chance to impress the boys upstairs, possibly even win an ambassadorship. His secret contact on the government’s side is an avuncular billionaire, a Ukrainian kleptocrat named Misha Kovrin, who’s rich enough and amoral enough to change his alliances at any moment. “With Kovrin,” Miller notes, “the past is like a switch that he may turn off.” Davey knows all this, but while the Ukrainian court considers nullifying the presidential election, he engages in meetings with Kovrin to maintain the fragile peace on Independence Square.
Davey also assumes he can manage a Ukrainian woman named Olesya, who’s participating in the protests. Young and idealistic, Olesya makes a curious counterpoint to the infinitely expedient Kovrin. The one has nothing but her principles; the other has nothing but his money. As the situation grows more unstable, neither will prove as malleable to Davey’s handling as he imagines.
I’m not spoiling anything — really. Not only do we have the historical record of what unfolded in Ukraine, but Miller purposely undercuts one kind of suspense for another. Every other chapter of “Independence Square” takes place in London on a single day in 2017. Here, in a future once unimaginable to Davey, he’s a washed up ex-diplomat, divorced, estranged from his daughter, making ends meet by driving a taxi. He admits, “I have sensed my own personality contracting to a suite of grievances.” How far will he go to avenge himself on the people who ruined him?
Self-knowledge proves extraordinarily expensive for Davey, a man long blinded by an exaggerated estimate of his insight and cleverness. But the novel’s greater tragedy extends out to the political world that Davey once thought he could help guide toward nobility and fairness. Given our own dispiriting drama starring Washington and Ukraine, that may sound like old news, but it’s still harrowing to see the way power radiates through nations and lives, raising some, crushing others.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By A.D. Miller
Pegasus. 246 pp. $25.95