Sunday August 23 2009
Spring 1948 and Aleksandr, a KGB major, is sent to an isolated psychiatric clinic in the Urals to investigate Anatoly Yudin. A famous pianist in the 1930s, Yudin disappeared during the Second World War and was presumed dead. Now he has resurfaced and has a strange form of amnesia. Or does he? Aleksandr suspects Yudin may be writing anti-Soviet tracts. Does Lozovsky, Yudin's doctor, know something? The story is told by Aleksandr, looking back from 1972 as he begins to see the whole of Soviet history - and the role he has himself played - in a different light.
With Aleksandr, David Szalay, winner of the Betty Trask Prize 2008 for his debut London and the South-East, has created an extraordinary character, a KGB man you can imagine knowing or even being. Aleksandr is an idealist, a "real" communist, who truly believes in the system and wants to do the right thing. Anyone who has seen the German film The Lives of Others will recognise the type: he's a cousin of Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, another Everyman who suddenly finds himself questioning everything he has ever believed.
This, then, is a similar situation in Soviet form. Szalay's trick is to make us feel for Aleksandr and sympathise with his dilemmas, while inserting the odd chilling clue as to what's really going on. ("Turn off his light," he says to the officer guarding a man under interrogation and we suddenly realise the conditions the prisoner has been kept in.) Aleksandr's journalist brother, Ivan, offers a foil to the ideological purity; he is prepared to take risks and sees the flaws in the system - until he becomes a beneficiary of it himself. Over the course of the book, the two brothers swap roles, with Aleksandr becoming more disillusioned and Ivan happily riding the gravy train.
The novel's focus swings dramatically between the two brothers' changing relationship and the fate of Yudin and Lozovsky, until we, like Aleksandr, are no longer sure who's in the right, who is supposedly guilty and who really has done something wrong. The result is not so much a critique of the Soviet system - or of totalitarianism - as a comment on the uncertainty of life, how little we know others or even ourselves.
Woven into the narrative are fascinating accounts of historical moments, seen through the eyes of ordinary Soviets, which gradually affect Aleksandr's mindset: losing to the Germans 3-0 at football in the 1972 European Championship final; Bobby Fischer beating Boris Spassky at the Reykjavik chess championships. When Aleksandr's KGB mentor, a man whom he considers to be as trustworthy and "pure" as himself, is targeted, his world implodes. Meanwhile, there are scenes of quiet, comic desperation from everyday Soviet life. The KGB officer supposed to be intercepting Lozovsky falls asleep at his post. In a communal flat, people find themselves involuntarily registering what their neighbours last had to eat and when they last smoked a cigarette.
This is an exciting and memorable read. Expertly researched, it feels authentic, but wears its learning reassuringly lightly. Anyone who appreciated Martin Amis's Koba the Dread and Orlando Figes's The Whisperers will love it, as will fans of The Lives of Others or Burnt by the Sun. As with both films, the theme of silent, regret-filled horror is beautifully, chillingly captured.
guardian.co.uk Copyright (c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009