A Canadian music critic shows exceptional poise and command in his debut novel, a first-person tale narrated by the Russian inventor of the theremin.
Lev Sergeyvich Termen is a real historical figure, a Russian scientist and inventor, but his voice here is all the author’s in a novel that somehow manages to feel both classically Russian (with echoes of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn) and very contemporary. It has an epic scope that spans decades and countries but retains a tight focus through the writing of Termen, who's confined to a ship. While he's supposed to be keeping a log, he recounts a life that extends from the high society of pre-Depression America to imprisonment under Stalin. “Sometimes I am writing you a letter, Clara, and other times I am just writing, pushing type into paper, making something of my years,” he explains. Clara is the narrator’s lifelong love, though not one of the two women he married. He met her after traveling to America to promote his invention, “a musical instrument, an instrument of the air,” its pitch controlled by the movement of the hands and their proximity to the antennae. “I was the Communist magician, the conductor of the ether, sent out by the state to show off my great discoveries,” he says. His invention offered him the possibility of great riches, as American corporations had visions of mass production and “a theremin in every home.” But it also offered an opportunity for Termen to serve his homeland as an ambivalent spy, with Russian handlers conducting his business affairs and monitoring his moves. The Depression brought an end to the dreams of riches, and the rise of Stalin returned the inventor who had prospered under Lenin to his homeland as a traitor and “a pauper in a land where I thought poverty had been abolished.”
Both the voice and the stories it tells transcend the dusty contrivances of much historical fiction, resulting in a novel that feels both fresh and timeless.