The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Paul M. Levitt (Rowman, $11.99 paperback; August 2014)
Levitt has deeply immersed himself in the double binds and faint allegiances of the Stalin era. His first novel, Stalin’s Barber, reviewed here a year or more ago, was a masterful historical jaunt across the Soviet empire on the coattails of an itinerant barber. This second book is darker yet no less compelling.
Sasha, we are led to think, is a good man. A smart young man. Not a Communist man, but one who knows how to survive most of the social and linguistic traps of the Stalinist state:
“...he knew not to gloat about his mental accomplishments. Too many made you an enemy of the people; too few made you fodder for a factory. As a result, Sasha always measured his speech carefully, using among workers a common diction and among the well-educated a learned one.”
The book begins rather suddenly, with Sasha (home on college vacation) saving his parents’ lives by beheading two policemen come to arrest them as Enemies of the People. Sasha then sends his parents away to safety in obscurity, which allows him to “safely” denounce them for the murders. Deals and compromises follow, and Sasha is manipulated into working as an informer, then a school director, where his reforms inevitably cause him to be denounced himself.
Twists turn in on themselves and Sasha must stay one step ahead of himself, of his past, if he is to survive. Then two men arrive in town who seem to bear incriminating knowledge of that past.
To tell any more would lessen this powerful novel’s value for the reader. It is smart, well written, and imbued with a fine sense of this very dark time. Highly recommended.
Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2014