Voices whisper, fearful and secretive, across the generations in Russian novelist Ulitskaya’s (The Kukotsky Enigma, 2016, etc.) latest.
Nora Ossetsky is a Soviet icon of a kind, a single mother who resolutely raises her child alone while working to advance the cause of the fatherland. But, alas, in those days of Brezhnev and an arteriosclerotic state, she’s a bit of a bohemian, involved with a brilliant theater director who has decided that it would be better to wait out the repression back home with his wife in Tbilisi, a defeated retreat from Moscow after a staging of Chekhov is shut down on the eve of its premiere, having enraged “the ministerial special forces, the Party hacks" with its subtly subversive staging. Russian theater lies at the heart of Ulitskaya’s richly detailed story, which takes its title, subtly as well, from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, but so too do epic, multigenerational works of fiction—for underlying Nora’s story are those of her parents and grandparents, the latter from the revolutionary generation. The patriarch of the family is the watchmaker Pinchas Kerns, who has emigrated from Switzerland in time to watch the first stirrings of the anti-czarist uprisings; largely indifferent to politics—“He remained a craftsman all his life, and never quite grasped the finer, or even cruder, points of communism, much less capitalism”—Pinchas and his children are nevertheless swept up by events: war, the rise of the Stalinist state, and soon enough the gulag. “Even such a giant among men as Dostoevsky feared the horror of loneliness!” writes Nora’s grandfather Jacob, in a diary that tracks the horror not just of loneliness, but of being separated from family and society for the crime of being one whose “thinking was out of step.” Life improves for Nora with the end of the USSR, but even in 2011, at the end of the book, when “old age caught up with her," the fear remains.
A sweeping, ambitious story reminiscent at times of Pasternak in its grasp of both history and tragedy.