Robert Littell, who has written critically praised and popular spy fiction, has chosen to write a novel (really political science fiction) based on the career of Osip Mandelstam, a famous Russian poet.
During the 1930s, he wrote poems critical of Josef Stalin's policy of forced collectivization of farms that caused widespread famine and starvation among Ukrainian peasants. Millions died.
The book reads like a mixture of George Orwell's "1984" and Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass." That is, there is a surreal quality to the story that makes it by turns gruesome, darkly absurd and hysterical. Littell based the novel on stories he heard directly from Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda.
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The couple is at the center of the narrative, but Littell also gives us portraits of important political players in their drama -- Stalin, Nikolai Bukharin, Boris Pasternak and Anna Ahkmatova.
The story begins in 1934 when Mandelstam, who had an inflated sense of himself and his vocation, could no longer get his poems published. Like many writers of the time he circulated his work privately and his wife memorized every line he wrote so that it would not be forgotten.
Mandelstam, along with other individuals who questioned Stalin's policies, felt he had to express his objections. He made the mistake of sharing a critical poem with a young actress with whom he and his wife were intimate. When she was questioned by authorities their folly became clear and their nightmare began.
The poet was imprisoned where he received "enhanced interrogation techniques," Soviet style -- beatings, threats to relatives, sleep deprivation, inadequate food, squalid sanitary conditions and the company of other protesters even more harshly tortured.
Eventually his health, physical and mental, was ruined and he began to hallucinate. Does he have an interview with Stalin? He thinks so, but he also thinks he hears his wife in the prison.
He was sentenced to years of exile in Siberia and was joined, voluntarily, by his wife. When they are freed, they return illegally to Moscow where they are cared for by friends and fellow writers. Mandelstam writes a poem praising Stalin in hopes of regaining favor, and he has, he believes, another interview with Stalin.
The dictator, apparently a keen deconstructive reader of poetry, sees subtle criticism amid the praise and, worse still, thinks it's bad poetry. Nevertheless, the poet gets some royal treatment and is whisked off to a posh sanitorium to recover his health. There, far from Moscow, he is captured and never returns.
These characters are surrounded by others, real or imagined, who often carried out the suffering and later underwent suffering themselves -- the inquisition and punishment which ultimately destroyed Mandelstam.
There is Mandelstam's interrogator-torturer who ends up with the poet in the dreaded Lubyanka prison. There is the loyal, but simple-minded weight lifter Shotman, who is identified as a political conspirator because he purchased a used trunk, which had a sticker of the Eiffel Tower on it.
His fate is implicitly contrasted to Mandelstam's. He confesses and comes to believe he must be guilty since the Party is always right, even though he also knows he was not a conspirator. He receives a "light" sentence (that is, he wasn't executed) of several years in a Siberian work camp where day-to-day survival is the only possible goal. Still, he returns safely to his previous life as a circus performer.
Bukharin is executed after a real interview with Stalin. His last note to Stalin, "Koba, why do you need me to die?" is never answered and, multiplied millions of times, it remains the question the sane can find no answer for.
If part of the answer is Stalin's private demons, we don't see them here. From Stalin, real or imagined, we get official explanations.
Bukharin was found guilty because he was. (For a brilliant portrayal of his warped psyche read "The Children of the Arbat" by Anatoli Rybakov.)
The strength of this narrative lies in the straightforward description of the awful absurdities, the brutality, the bureaucratic pretzel logic and the mental and physical responses to it, that were required to survive Stalin's regime.
Conditions in the prisons, in the boxcars used to transport prisoners to Siberia, the terrible conditions of the camps themselves, are not easily forgotten. And for those who had remained free, there was the fear that they could be next.
"The Stalin Epigram" is a powerful book, not exactly a read for the beach.
Michael Helfand teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh.