Interestingly, this 2016 book starts as a novel and ends as a biography. In a way, it’s neither - but that’s not very important. What really matters goes beyond genre and pigeon holes and maybe that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
It is first of all about the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, a prominent composer who managed to survive the horror of Stalinism and the tyranny of the USSR government. Through his struggles and sometimes cowardice, this is also a reflection on art in general (not just music) and politics. The book relates a dark past history for the people of Russia under Stalin, when criticising the State was punished by prison and death. Surviving was therefore to abide, and soul-tied artists had to play carefully in order to see their works come to life.
The irony is that the death of the old USSR and the birth of Russia don’t seem to have change the way their leaders operate, using threat, fear, imprisonment, torture and murder to throttle freedom of speech and thought.
The great thing about the book is that although the story takes place in Russia, it could travel to numerous other places on the planet, places where expressing dissent is as dangerous as swimming in an alligator-infested river. As I’m not writing a pamphlet, I won’t name any here, but will simply recommend reading this book which is also extremely well written. Not a page-turner, I do admit, but a profound meditation on how public life can turn private life into some sort of nightmare… and vice-versa.
- Gilbert B, House of Hodge Volunteer