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.

Comedy in this sense need not be free of pain and despair; it need not be happy. Nor need the employment of a fictional genre imply a lack of historical rigor. The “emplotment” of historical moments, to use Hayden White’s term from so many years ago, is not arbitrary; genres are necessary parts of historical work, serving to provide the broader meanings that connect historical actors with their moment. By using fiction, Spufford is able to make abstract accounts of how the Soviet system operated concrete, and concretely horrible. The collage of stories allows him both to portray individuals striving to reach goals and the overarching system that encompasses those individuals.

The two chapters of Part Three, for example, work by juxtaposing two places: the new, isolated Akademgorodok, which Spufford wonderfully translates as “Academyville,” and the grimy industrial town of Novocherkossk. Akademgorodok is a place of freely available food and liquor, even an automobile at the disposal of Kantorovich; here thought can be free from party restraints, even love can be free. The connection between the two chapters appears as the young thinkers influenced by systems theory declare the need for “optimal pricing”—and the newcomer, the biologist Zoya Vaynshteyn (i.e. a German-Jewish name; like Grossman, Spufford weaves ethnicity into his account), thinks: “Spoken like somebody who doesn’t do the shopping” (178). Juxtaposition: Novocherkossk, the workers and citizens use the symbols of the regime to protest price hikes, and the political leadership, which the young cyberneticians would like to convince, can do nothing but swear, panic, and retaliate against their apparent enemies, shooting them down. The young party cadre Kolodya has expected something better, something less brutish at the top; the top turns out to be as brutish and violent as the party cadres at the bottom. Akademgorodok dreaming slams into the hard cement floor of dictatorship.

The method works even better in Part Four, which makes its way through the reality of the “planning” process: the arbitrary judgment of the Gosplan official; the game of the plant managers, aptly rendered as a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma; the reality of how the economy functions through favors (the infamous Russian term “blat”), described in the form of one man with connections to managers, planners, gangsters, truckers, and waiters. Yes, Chekushin is not quite believable as a single person. But through him Spufford can crystallize the marvelous stories that the late Joseph Berliner found when he undertook his interviews of managers who had defected from the Soviet Union, during the height of the Cold War. Kantorovich hoped to optimize the plan; by the end of Part Four, one can see little optimization in practice, and indeed not much in the way of a plan.

By the time one finishes Part Four, the novel has made its point—before the Kosygin reforms have even begun. The last two parts of the book read like an extended death sentence on the Soviet Union. “Externalities” weave their way in—cancer and environmental degradation, everyday anti-Semitism and the demoralizing political trials in the academy. The last part of the book is no longer describing optimal and suboptimal socialism; it’s describing the grimy realities of a modern, industrial dictatorship. If the novel’s chief protaganist is the system itself, then the novel is a kind of anti-Bildungsroman, a narrative of de-formation.

In this context, I must admit that the last words of the novel seemed out of place to me. “Hope” in the sense of hoping for redemption through planning has not just been ground into the dust by events, it has lost its connection to reality; Red Plenty seems like “wishful thinking,” i.e. an unfounded yearning for a different world, rather than a “concrete utopia,” a vision of the future grounded in the possibilities of the present, to use Ernst Bloch’s terms. When the economist Emil Arslanovich Shaidullin confronts Kosygin in Part Five on how the plan for shadow pricing requires coherent inputs to start with—when he in fact calls for the planners to give up their power and also their security—he is shocked by the incomprehension of the party leadership. A confrontation occurs between the economist and the politician, between the theorist of optimal pricing and the politician who knows that radical price shifts can occasion civil unrest. Emil is left despondent. The section ends (301): “‘Can I hope, then?’ said Emil, despite himself. ‘Oh, you can always hope,’ said Mokhov [of Gosplan] warmly. ‘Be my guest.'” And then the final words of the novel (361): “The Soviet Union falls. The dance of commodities resumes. And the wind in the trees of Akademgorodok says: can it be otherwise? Can it be, can it be, can it ever be otherwise?”

But what does “hope” mean in this context? And why should Akademgorodok be the place where hope in embodied? After all, didn’t Academyville rather embody the logic of the system—its claim to scientifically plan from above, its faith in science and industry, its separation of the privileged from the unprivileged? Didn’t it serve both to symbolize progress and to isolate possible dissent from technical experts? And why should the most important change with the end of the Soviet Union be “the dance of commodities,” i.e. capitalism—not the opening of possibilities for challenging environmental pollution, corruption, official arrogance, and dictatorship?

These rhetorical questions point back to the formal question about the relationship between historical and fictional writing that Spufford has posed throughout the book. The relationship is in fact quite close. The historian must also consider the mode of representing a historical moment: as a system, as a linear narrative, as a moment of crisis? He or she must also consider the viability of challenges, the meaning of twists in the plot line. In some cases, the historian develops fictional characters as well, such as the average worker or average party cadre. Without such abstractions, social history is pretty much impossible. So there isn’t much distance between the genres in many respects.

But in Red Plenty, the two genres remain distinct. The fictional account here seeks to describe through events and dialogue; the over 50 pages of historical notes that accompany the fictional one describe through assertive statements. The difference is at times jarring. In the confrontation between Shaidullin and Kosygin mentioned above, for example, Spufford’s note on p. 405 suggests that Kosygin’s counter argument consisted “of shrewd realism as well as self-interest and incomprehension.” I think that he’s probably right from a historical perspective, but the note seems to dictate to the reader how to understand the writer. Similarly, when the young Shaidullin visits a collective farm near the start of the book, he asks, “Did something bad happen here?” The question (at p. 75) seems to come out of the blue; the historical note at p. 375 fills the gap by providing an authoritative reference to Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. In other words, the scholarly annotation claims an objective voice, in contrast with the voices in history in the main text.

Which brings me back to the contrast between Life and Fate and Red Plenty. There is no place outside of the text in Life and Fate; precisely the all-encompassing nature of the narrative makes the results so horrible, indeed forces the reader to put the book down at times, unable to face the next scene. The narrative of historical fiction and the narrative of history in Red Plenty, however, have an asymmetric relationship: the historical notes stabilize the fiction. Therefore the reference to hope at the end of the novel seems so out of place. Because the omniscient historian has in fact eliminated hope from the narrative.



William Timberman 05.31.12 at 2:08 pm

There’s not only comedy in Red Plenty, but the sympathy that always marks the best comedy as well; sympathy for vanished people history has seemingly given us permission to forget. And since we’ve lately come to where they were, there’s irony, too, and an object lesson for those who remain contemptuous of an awkward, cruel system that sheltered its idealists for a time in a way that ours no longer does. Finally, there’s forgiveness for the inhabitants of Akademgorodok, and prospective forgiveness as well for the inhabitants of our own academyvilles. When all else is said and done, Red Plenty is a poignant elegy, and a warning.


Chris Williams 05.31.12 at 2:43 pm

Carl, I think that _RP_ does include a couple of pointers to the socio-political future as well as the final focus which is, as you say, purely about its political economy. The first is Kolodya himself, witnessing the massacre. I suspect that he’ll be at the 1986 Party Congress, when Gorbachev called for the CP to face up to its own collective guilt. Truth did (for a time) out.

The second is the songwriter, who’s had a particularly cushy life under Party dictatorship, but decides to stop lying and sing it like he sees it. In both cases (but especially the latter), we see a cutting through the lies of the regime, and the possibility of an intellectual and spiritual break from it, even as the prospects for a material break remain closed off. In fact, the gig at the end is set the point at which Academyville has become like everywhere else (including newly-arrived antisemitism) and the dreaming of the cybernetic future has been stopped. Impotent dissidence is the only way out, but it _is_ a way out of doublethink.

I agree entirely with your interpretation of the relationship between text and footnotes — lucky sod that I am, I spent an hour last year in a room full of historians listening to Francis talk about this aspect of the book. He claims not to be a historian, but I’m not so sure.


The Raven 05.31.12 at 4:29 pm

“In both cases (but especially the latter), we see a cutting through the lies of the regime, and the possibility of an intellectual and spiritual break from it, even as the prospects for a material break remain closed off.”

Redemption through sacrifice. Very Russian, isn’t it?


Colin Danby 05.31.12 at 9:40 pm

Neville Morley has a couple of interesting comments relevant to this under Kim Stanley Robinson’s post, and I’m also reminded of an argument around historical fiction some weeks back on Edge of the American West. So is the problem that once you do blatantly fictional narrative, other nearby narrative has to do something extra to make itself respectable? In this particular novel (?!) you have three voices going, then: the main narrative, the italicized passages, and the footnotes, each with its own genre conventions. This may explain some of the odd gestures in the intro about fairy tales.

Also interesting to see response so far at CT: we all know how to respond to this like a social science text (or, much worse, a political argument) and so far that seems to crowd out the sci fi discussion — which would really interest me, because I’m one of those people who doesn’t know how to read science fiction.


gordon 05.31.12 at 11:59 pm

Reading the posts and many of the comments about this book leaves me with the impression that an almost exactly similar book – about the contrast between theory and aspiration on the one hand, and reality on the other – could easily be written about the US, maybe the UK, and probably other “Western” countries too.

It would be about the way a democratic system is in fact rigged; the way so-called “market capitalism” is gamed; the way “freedom” is for only some people; the way rule of law is twisted to favour the ruling class; the way race is officially declared irrelevant but in fact dictates the lives of millions; and the way insecurity and downright fear dominates the lives of almost everybody.

If I ever read this book (which is unlikely), I’m sure I would be dizzied by the vertigo as situation after situation transformed itself in my mind into the “Western” mirror image.


The Raven 06.01.12 at 7:17 am

Colin Danby, #4: this is how people respond to science fiction, or at least one of the ways. Isn’t this a historical novel, though? Ken Macleod famously remarked, “History is the trade secret of science fiction.” Perhaps Red Plenty reverses that; a historical novel informed by science fiction. (And anyone who hasn’t read the Strugatsky brothers, who Spufford acknowledges as an influence, really ought to.)


Chris Williams 06.01.12 at 7:58 am

Gordon, the genre is very different, but many of the same themes – planning, dreaming, political economy, technology – are explored for postwar Britain in Spufford’s _Backroom Boys_. It’s not quite so pessimistic as your view, though it is a bit pessimistic.


Latro 06.01.12 at 8:52 am

I just took the “permission to hope” that Emil receives as just a cynical way to tell him he can keep dreaming all he wants – what he cant do is actually implement anything. As long as it is hope and not reform, he is welcome to hope till he dies.


Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 9:12 am

About those Soviets bards: there’s no need to be overly sentimental about it, because if anything it was usually a sort of a trade-off. You could stick to the official line and have a bigger apartment, or you could rebel and become extremely famous, indeed a cult object. And yes, eventually they could expel you and you’d have to suffer, terribly, from nostalgia in Paris. I like Galich as much as the next guy, but come on, where’s the line here between redemption/sacrifice and a career move?


ajay 06.01.12 at 2:06 pm

Spufford’s Backroom Boys. It’s not quite so pessimistic as your view, though it is a bit pessimistic.

Unintentionally so, because the thing Spufford chooses to use in the last chapter as a symbol of the enduring spirit of British inventiveness and ingenuity is Beagle 2.


Neville Morley 06.01.12 at 3:52 pm

@Colin Danby #4: I’m not sure that there’s any specific way of reading science fiction, just as there’s no specific way of reading any other sort of text. True, some genres do try to set limits on what their readers get up to, but as a devotee of J.G.Ballard I have no problem at all in reading scientific or social scientific works as a kind of science fiction. They tend to be more concerned with ideas and less with characterisation, and rhetorically more subtle and less showy, but the same can be said for various SF novels. Spufford’s book strikes me as much more historical in lots of ways than most ‘popular’ narrative histories – I’ve been having a minor spat with Tom Holland on this topic recently – while also being thoroughly subversive of the genre in others.


PJW 06.02.12 at 12:19 am

Lovely essay, Carl. I liked the bit about the shoes during the tram ride and was delighted to see you mention it. Sometimes it all comes down to food and shoes. This is a magnificent seminar. Many thanks to Henry and to Crooked Timber for putting it together, and to the author for writing such a fine book. Who needs jet packs when there is this?


Colin Danby 06.02.12 at 3:54 am

I guess one thing that has put me off sci fi is the transparent pedagogy of so much of it: the allegory tends to be thin, and the Lessons it wants you to learn transparent. And I found myself early on in _Red Plenty_ jibbing at that. But, to link to John’s thread above, the way the book took the planning intellectuals and other figures seriously opened up the novel, and some of the characters and threads of plot took on a weight of their own.

I want to come back to the voices, though, because Carl’s excellent post got me thinking about Fuentes’ _Death of Artemio Cruz_, which also combines an authoritative 3rd-person narration with more personal and unreliable 1st and 2nd person voices. And _Cruz_ is also about the failure of a revolution, tracking back and forth across time to work out what happened.


purple 06.03.12 at 2:03 am

With the world capitalist system headed for its second collapse in 5 years one would think there would be a little time for contemporary self-reflection.

There is a time and place for USSR 60’s critique, but it’s not really vital stuff right now. What’s happening now is that capitalism is falling apart.

We know: the US ‘won’ the Cold War.


Stephen 06.03.12 at 8:08 pm


“the way insecurity and downright fear dominates the lives of almost everybody”

Maybe I’ve been lucky. Political fear has affected my life while expecting, pre-1989, a remotely possible war with the USSR: and when avoiding attempts (not of course personally targeted) by advocates of a 32-county socialist republic to kill me and my family. Dominating my life, no, I wouldn’t say so at all. Learning to live with possible fears is part of growing up.

Of course, I may not have lived in the same world as Gordon, for whom the democratic system is rigged, and so on. Some evidence for his fears – apart from the vote not going the way he wanted, and so on – would be welcome.

I could of course give him a list of countries where, for all or most of his criteria, the electoral system is in fact non-existent or outrageously rigged, the economy is incompetently controlled, freedom is for only very few, the rule of law is twisted to favour the ruling political class, race dictates the lives of millions, and insecurity and justified fear affects the lives of rather a large number of people. I wonder how many of these would be on the lists of countries he opposes.


Stephen 06.03.12 at 8:32 pm

“With the world capitalist system headed for its second collapse in 5 years”

Logic, dear Purple. If the world capitalist system collapsed 5 years ago but has now rebounded to the point where it is (or may be) about to collapse again, you must credit the w.c.s with astonishing powers of recuperation. In which case, you should expect the second collapse, if it ever happens, to be equally temporary and reversible.

Alternatively, it didn’t in fact collapse 5 years ago.

Please let us know which of these alternatives you find less distasteful.

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