On Narrating a System

by carl_caldwell on May 31, 2012

Francis Spufford’s sprawling mosaic of the Soviet Union in the 1960s at first reminds one of Vasily Grossman’s account of Stalinism and the Second World War in Life and Fate. Both use a variety of characters—workers and soldiers, technical elite and normal party cadre—to shift places and perspectives, in order to reveal the hopes, contradictions, and failures of the periods they describe. Both are eminently historical novels, based on extensive scholarly reading in Spufford’s case and vast journalistic experience in Grossman’s.

But there the similarity ends; each novel has a quite different point. Life and Fate is horribly tragic. The Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad are marked for death by the Germans and by “resolute” party cadre behind the lines at the same time. Juxtaposed to the horrific image of the woman hugging the child in the gas chamber is the postwar anti-Semitism that seeps through the pores of late Stalinism. Red Plenty, by contrast, despite the wretched fates of some of its characters, reads like a comedy, at times a dark one. The hopes of the mathematicians and cyberneticians prove mere wishful thinking within the real system of state socialism—the actual subject of the novel. In the first chapter, the prodigy Leonid Kantorovich thinks his deep thoughts on how to optimize the Soviet system—”All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen”—while tuning out the reality of the bus. “He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they’d let him. His left foot dripped. He really must find a way to get new shoes.” Idea confronts reality; were this filmed, it could be slapstick.
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