I picked up another book bargain at the Dollar Store a while ago, this time a novel by Tom Rob Smith who made the New York Times Best Seller List for an earlier work, Child 44. Smith graduated from Cambridge University in 2001 and, apparently, has enjoyed a brilliant success at an early age. I knew nothing about him or his earlier work and so, I decided to risk a $l.00 for, The Secret Speech.
The novel is set in Russian in 1956, after Stalin’s death has left a fractured society under Nikita Khrushchev. As the story begins, the new Russian leader has written a secret letter denouncing Stalin’s cruel regime and when it is exposed to the nation, lives are thrown into turmoil as the people grapple with the government’s new direction. Past perpetrators try to expatiate their guilt. Leo Demidov is one of them, a former state security officer who is confronted by a victim from his past.
The book is well written and the plot is character driven as Demidov, struggles to protect his family from being persecuted for his crimes. His struggle is understandable as who has not wrestled with guilt?
Yet as I read the book, I detect an air of dissembling. The characters have an inner life, but the emotions expressed seem more imagined than real. This is no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflecting on his life in a gulag. When it comes to interior monologues, it’s hard to replicate the mastery of the Russians. I don’t know why a young man from Cambridge, born decades after Stalin, would try. And yet, he is not the first. A woman won the Oregon Book Award a few years ago attempting the same feat. She kept her readers in a Russian toilet for the most part, a memory I can do without.
I have a tremendous respect for the Russian people and their writers. Their history has been one of constant oppression, first by cruel or indifferent monarchs and then by a series of brutal tyrants. As a result, Russians have learned to hold their tongues but have compensated with a rich inner life. I understand an author’s desire to emulate them, but I think it best that Russian novels be left to the Russians.
(Tom Rob Smith courtesy of www.flickr.com)