'Enchantments' Of Rasputin's Lion-Taming Daughter

Originally published on March 3, 2012 5:09 pm

The famed mystic Rasputin — notorious for his otherworldly powers and his sexual escapades — may not have seemed like a traditional family man, but in fact, he had a wife and three children.

His eldest daughter, Maria, is at the center of Kathryn Harrison's new novel, Enchantments, a dark fairytale mash-up of history and magical realism set during the last days of Imperial Russia.

Maria, called Masha in the novel, had a life almost as intriguing as her father's. "Once I discovered that he had a daughter, and that she had escaped the Bolsheviks and gone to Europe and become, eventually, a successful lion tamer who toured in the United States as the 'Daughter of the Mad Monk,' it just was irresistible," Harrison tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden. "Now I had a way of seeing into that world."

That world is the glittering, doomed court of the last Romanov rulers, Nicholas and Alexandra, who took in Rasputin's daughters after his murder in 1916.

Alexandra's treasured only son, Alexei — called Alyosha in the book-- suffered terribly from hemophilia, which historians say only Rasputin was able to ease.

Harrison says it was easy to imagine that the tsarina might have hoped Rasputin's daughter would carry on her father's healing powers after his death.

And while Masha cannot heal the prince the way her father did, she does have some powers of her own.

"She can't cure him, but she can provide solace," Harrison says, in the form of tales she spins about Russia, her father and the exploits of Handsome Alyosha, a mythical stand-in for the gravely ill prince who can have all the adventures the prince himself is denied.

"As their relationship evolves, it becomes one of her reinterpreting a world that he sees in very stark terms," Harrison says. "It's a sort of magic that she does."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Kathryn Harrison's new book, "Enchantments," is a fairy tale mash-up of history and magical realism set during the last days of Romanov rule in Russia. The main character is Masha, daughter of the man whom neither fiction, film nor history can ever seem to quite get enough of, Rasputin. Harrison says the famed mystic may not have seemed like a family man, but he did have a wife and three children.

KATHRYN HARRISON: And once I discovered that he had a daughter and that she had escaped the Bolsheviks, gone to Europe and become, eventually, a successful lion tamer who toured in the United States as the daughter of the mad monk, it just was irresistible. Now, I had a way of seeing into that world.

LYDEN: That world is the glittering but doomed court of the last Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, who took in Rasputin's daughters after his murder in 1916. Alexandra's treasured only son, the Tsarevich Alexei, known as Alyosha in the book, suffered terribly from hemophilia, which history says only Rasputin seemed able to relieve. Harrison says it was easy to imagine that Alexandra might have hoped Rasputin's daughter, Masha, would carry her father's healing power.

HARRISON: Masha is taken aback, to say the least, to discover what the Tsarina's hopes are. But once she meets Alyosha and begins speaking with him, they have an infinity, and it's based on the imagination and storytelling, which is one thing she can do for him.

LYDEN: She's kind of a Scheherazade in this world here.

HARRISON: Yes. I think that's a fair description. She can't cure him, but she can provide solace. And as the relationship evolves, it becomes one of her reinterpreting a world that he sees in very stark terms. He is the realist or not so much the pessimist, because all of what he expects does come true. But she can divert him from that future that we all know by the sort of magic that she does by telling stories. And they are stories of Russia and stories of his parents, and they're all transformed for him through her eyes.

LYDEN: So when she is the Scheherazade who is surrounding and cocooning him with wonderful, distracting and healing stories, one of the things she does for this hemophiliac young man is, in her imagination, give him something that he has been denied. And what would you deny the crown prince who can have almost everything?

HARRISON: Well, he can't have a bicycle. So she invents one for him. And she calls him Handsome Alyosha. He does all the things that the real crown prince can't do.

LYDEN: Will you please read this bit for us?

HARRISON: Yes. (Reading) Handsome Alyosha's bicycle is red, I told Alyosha, but the handlebars are chrome. Does it have mudguards over the tires? It does. Is it a Raleigh or a Triumph? Neither. It has to be an English bicycle. Says who? I don't like American ones as well as I do English. It's not American or English or French or anything else. It's magic. Handsome Alyosha can pedal it on water and above the clouds. He's written it through the heavens. Every new moon, there's a race around the largest of Saturn's rings, and Handsome Alyosha always wins.

LYDEN: Then she tells him that the gods are racing it, you know? While Masha may not have had the healing powers she was invited into the household to have, she certainly had her own power. And you've brought that back to life.

HARRISON: Yes, I hope so. She struck me as a powerful person because of her ability to escape the revolution and her incredibly creative solution to making money. I mean, I always understood her as somebody who would not give up.

LYDEN: You say that this really came alive for you when you discovered that Masha Rasputin had become, in fact, the big cat and lion tamer. That's - she actually did. She escapes to Paris and then to the U.S.?

HARRISON: Yeah, she actually did. And her career came to a rather sticky end in Peru, Indiana, in 1935 when she was mauled by a bear and nearly bled to death. So there's that sort of strange symmetry. But it's one of those stories in which it's so clear that individual lives and their trials can intersect with history and change things in a way that's remarkable.

LYDEN: Kathryn Harrison's new novel is "Enchantments." Kathryn Harrison, thank you very much.

HARRISON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.