The novel began with the abstract question “What is home?” and with the belief that home is an emotional concept that means very different things to different people. This led me to consider what it might be like to be aged about 60 and to have no concept of home. I tried to visualise such a character.
I felt that three ingredients would need to be involved: a severe dislocation during childhood, a working life that involved constant travel, and the current absence of close family members. The life story of Feliks Zhukovski was constructed from these elements.
World War II was the certain cause of childhood dislocation for many people, and Poland a likely country of birth. So I conceived the idea of someone who had been born in Poland before the war, who became separated from his close family during the war, and who had since produced a one-man tourist guide to Eastern Europe, travelling constantly to update it.
It was at this point that the political dimensions of the novel began to emerge, and also what to me became its main theme – why do we believe what we believe? The mindset of fellow-travellers has always intrigued me. I can quite see how people could have been attracted to the ideals of the fledgling Soviet Union, especially in the aftermath of the First World War. But – as details of the reality began to emerge, and in particular of Stalin’s atrocities – how could anyone who started out with an idealism for humanity continue to believe that Stalin’s regime served it in any way?
Perhaps the answer to this question is to be found not in the system itself, not even in a reluctance to believe the increasingly horrific news that came out of it, but in the emotional and psychological background of the believer. Hence Feliks: someone who thinks his opinions are entirely rational, when in fact – as with all of us – they are the product of his own experiences and the emotions they have engendered.
Being the age I am, and with a lifelong interest in politics, I already knew much of the political background to the novel. But I needed to supplement that knowledge with more detailed reading. History books supplied much of the information, and I am especially indebted to A Concise History of Poland by Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki, Rising ’44, Norman Davies’s account of the Warsaw Rising, Stasiland by Anna Funder, The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor and Paris after the Liberation by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper.
I should also mention two deeply moving personal accounts: Roman’s Journey by Roman Halter and My Century by Aleksander Wat. The latter provided the title of the novel: “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” is what some communist sympathisers did say in the ’30s when confronted with the realities of Stalin’s regime. I would urge anyone who is interested in the historical background of the novel to read both these books.
Shortly before the novel was published, I made a journey to three of its scenes: Berlin, Warsaw and Łódź. The normal practice is to do the research first and then write the book, but I had to do it the other way round. So it was a bizarre journey because, by the time I made it, the characters and their stories had already come so alive for me that it felt like delving into the lives of real people, not imagined ones. To see buildings, and to enter stairwells, that had once been part of the Łódź ghetto was an extraordinarily moving experience, as was the visit to the obscure Radegast railway sidings at the edge of town, the makeshift station from which the Jews of the Łódź Ghetto were deported to their deaths.
Life does sometimes imitate art and it did twice on this trip. In Berlin, I was lucky enough to find a taxi driver called Andreas, born in the West, who went into East Berlin aged 18 (against the flow, it must be said) on the night the Wall fell and lived in a squat there for several months. When I asked him to produce a stinking apartment block in the east of city where one of the characters might have lived, he said there were plenty of dreary blocks, but none sufficiently filthy. “Never?” I asked, dreading a slight rewrite. “Well, some of them are,” he said, “but only when the young far Right moved in.”
In Łódź, where I was very grateful to Tomasz Koralewski of the Tourist Board and Maciej Kronenberg of the University for their time and patience, we settled on Wschodnia Street as a plausible site for the Zhukovski apartment. By then, I had already established Jozef Pilsudski as Teresa Zhukovska’s hero. “Wait,” said Maciej, as I was attempting to spell ‘Wschodnia’ correctly, “actually, for a short time in the ’30s – between Pilsudski’s death and the War – it was called Pilsudski Street, because he once lived here.”
If the process of writing a novel set in an actual historical context should be to make that context come alive for the reader, this visit is what made it come alive for me.