Magazine article The Spectator

A Missed Mesage

Magazine article The Spectator

A Missed Mesage

Article excerpt

This is an unimportant book by an important author. The poet Irina Ratushinskaya spent seven years in a Russian labour camp before Gorbachev and wrote an admirable memoir about it, Grey Is the Colour of Hope. Although she had been sentenced for writing `anti-Soviet' verse, what distinguished that book was its moral, almost apolitical tone and modest heroism.

Fictions and Lies, alas, is quite another thing, slight, predictable and derivative. I have a bad feeling, which I hope is untrue, that some literary agent or other opportunist advised Miss Ratushinskaya that there is money in thrillers laced with a bit of sex and set in a communist country.

It is 1970. A well-known writer with a long dissident pedigree writes a novel which the regime wants to seize before it gets out and further inflames anti-Soviet sentiment in the West. We are reminded that 1970 is the year that Solzhenitzyn gets the Nobel Prize, but, like other intellectuals, whose names I suspect many readers will not recognise, he is still under KGB pressure. The days of immense gulag sentences, torture and execution are over, however, to the regret of the Stalinist veterans in the KGB who appear in the novel. What is used instead is the terrifying threat of the mental hospital from which few emerge intact.

One of these Stalinists lives on his reputation as a war writer. He is a fraud; his fame rests on the publication, under his name, of the manuscript of a comrade killed in battle. Of course the KGB know this and use it delicately to keep him pliable as an informer. This is an inside black joke referring to the famous writer of the Stalin years Mikhail Sholokhov, celebrated as the author of novels about the Don Cossacks during the Revolution, whom many suspected of stealing a dead man's work.

Before he dies, the dissident author gives copies of his subversive manuscript to friends who hide them in what they assume are safe places, which the security organs have little trouble finding. The KGB threatens these intellectuals, who easily become `agents of influence' or informers, for which they are rewarded. If they are women, who seduce their targets, with expensive foreign underwear; if male, with contracts and wide publication. …

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