Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge.
Barnes has created a wonderful thing with this wry novel. It stands for any life lived under the kind of regime that requires the sacrifice and compromise of anyone who wants to survive it, whether an oppressive political system, an allegedly democratic system that gives power to the wealthiest, or a bureaucratic workplace with a built-in career structure. For all its page count slightness, it is a dense read, one that forced me to read slowly in order to absorb everything it was telling me.
This is a fiction based on facts. Events in the life of Julian Barnes’s Shostakovich happened to the actual Shostakovich. Barnes imagines what Dmitri Dmitrievich’s inner monologue in reaction to those events might have been. In doing so, Barnes provides an allegory for private life lived in relation to public authority. As well as a satire about the Soviet system under Stalin, with its arbitrary rules and changeable persecutions, the book is a reflection on how any of us subdue our true selves in the workplace or under whatever political system governs our country. We all make compromises to fit in with the system. Some of us, like Barnes’s Shostakovich, use irony to take away the bitterness of not being true to ourselves, others convince themselves that they truly believe the nonsense we are made to labour under, and a few are naïve about the world they inhabit.
The book is a thoughtful and thought provoking one. It considers the matter of historical fact and whether we can ever trust it to be true. Shostakovich reads articles he hasn’t written to discover what he is supposed to think. He knows it isn’t true, but the articles become the historical record by which he is judged. He considers death, and realises that death would mean he is no longer able to tell his own story, even if only to himself. His story would be completely in the hands of the Soviet régime. As an historian, and as an archivist whose job it is to preserve and protect the historical record, I find ideas about what is fact and what is perception reported as fact interesting. It tips over into literature like this book and Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, where such a convincing fictional portrait of an actual person is constructed by the author that the novel comes to be treated as biography. Facts are often dull. I see facts contained within the archive I manage embroidered and embellished by our press team to make an interesting story. Those amplified facts then become received wisdom, distorting the actual history. It reminds me of when I was at school, studying the First World War. We were given an essay topic about the Christmas truce and one of my classmates described as reported fact the video to Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace.
The other thing I liked about this book is its dryness. Barnes writes wryly as Shostakovich, and I found that I had to slow my reading to properly absorb what he was getting at. It’s not an entertaining romp through the life of Shostakovich, it’s a story about principles, compromise and survival. Anyone who chooses to have a career rather than simply work for a living will recognise themselves, and the sacrifices and compromises they’ve had to make, as they climb their chosen ladder. I certainly did.