Robert Littell normally writes intelligent, engaging espionage adventures which embroider upon historical events. Here he ventures further into the field of literary historical fiction to explore one aspect of life in the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin’s totalitarian regime in the 1930s. It’s not a comfortable experience, as Littell very effectively destroys the career, family and sanity of a naïve poet, an idealist member of the intelligentsia who thought that speaking his truth to power would be worth the inevitable consequences.
Littell has written another almost-factual semi-history about the political situation of the interwar years but that book – Young Philby – is very different in tone to The Stalin Epigram. They’re both told from different perspectives, like a historical document gathered from various sources. Philby disguises its seriousness but The Stalin Epigram grinds the reader down with its relentless descent into inevitable destruction of the individual. It’s a blend of 1984 and Animal Farm, a knife being twisted at the heart of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. Philby frolics, unashamedly tantalising the reader with its mischievous intrigues. The Stalin Epigram is such a miserably depressing blunt instrument by comparison that I almost stopped reading it part way.
There are several stories told here, but as the narratives intermingle it’s obvious they’re casting a different light on the same situation. We meet a circus strongman (previously a medal winning weightlifter, who reminds me oh so strongly of Boxer the workhorse), and also the novel’s putative protagonist, a poet of waning popularity who won’t bow to state expectations. Both fall foul of the secret police and are ground down by the machinery of brutal oppression.
One of these men has committed an act of deliberate rebellion against Stalin. The other has not. One is a faithful Soviet citizen, undeserving of his punishment. The other wilfully taunts authority and then seems surprised when it reacts with implacable ferocity. Neither story is easy to read; the interrogation scenes are especially bleak. The ending is… inevitable.
Littell successfully evokes a sense of inescapable desperation, of suspicion and paranoia. Initially, it’s hard to empathise with the posturing poet who takes advantage of his position of privilege within society – but Littell artfully demonstrates how the state could manipulate such situations to undermine the individual.
At times the writing can get a little indulgent, and I didn’t think that a sequence of surreal dream scenes added much to the narrative or emotional impact. By the end of the book I was impressed by Littell’s accomplishment, although I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading it.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell is available as an ebook or paperback
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