Littell (Vicious Circle, 2006, etc.) adapts the unhappy story of iconic Russian poet Osip Mandelstam to deliver another of his chilling portraits of bureaucracy gone mad.
It’s 1934, and Stalin’s secret police are on a tear in Moscow. No one, no matter how intrinsically law-abiding, is arrest-proof. That’s because it’s hard to abide by laws that can change in a blink and often as not turn out to be state secrets anyway. “Is there anything that’s not a state secret?” the poet Anna Akhmatova asks an agent of the dreaded Cheka. Most assuredly, comes the ready reply, “But what’s not a state secret is a state secret.” Plunged deep into this bureaucratic nightmare, the artistically brilliant, politically naïve Mandelstam at first tries to cope. But the fact that he’s now forbidden to publish torments him; it’s a hammer blow to the poet’s very reason for being. Against the advice—more accurately, the pleading—of his wife, friends and colleagues, he composes and publicly declaims an inflammatory, eventually infamous 16-line epigram that characterizes Stalin as a murderer, then describes the Soviet leader’s “cockroach whiskers” and fingers “fat as grubs.” Mandelstam might as well have requested a summons to Lubyanka Prison, of course, and in short order that’s where he finds himself residing. Not surprisingly, unrelenting assaults on the poet’s body and spirit break him. Convinced on a daily basis that a bullet to the back of his head must be his fate, Mandelstam somehow manages to escape actual execution, but the poet in him is less fortunate. In the meantime, Stalin’s dictum that everyone is guilty of something remains in force, packing the prisons while thinning the post-Revolution population.
Firmly in the tradition of Orwell, Kafka and Koestler—and equally harrowing.