Books for our times

This novel reminds us how a creative artist dealt with the might of a (Leftist) totalitarian state

In Julian Barnes’s ‘The Noise of Time’ composer Shostakovich rebels where possible, accepts his fate where not.

Whom does art serve and whom should art serve? Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time is concerned with this question. Barnes, Man Booker Prize winner, answers through his protagonist’s voice “Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them?” It was fitting that Barnes chose one of the greatest composers of the previous century who lived under one of the greatest censorship regimes of all time to address this.

The problem with biographical fiction is that one doesn’t know where history ends and the story starts. NoT is a monologue of Dmitri Shostakovich; but maybe only a fictional monologue can do adequate justice to a voice silenced by reality. NoT explores the Russian composer’s negotiations, defiances, compromises, surrenders, little big triumphs and losses under the Soviet regime.

One can sense strong traces of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony in the tempo and mood of the novel. The symphony, elegant but flippant, was accused by Soviet critics of trivialising the USSR’s victory in the Second World War. The critics expected something Wagnerian, music of and for a truly heroic nation emerging out of a profound tragedy. There was nothing tragic in the classical sense about the War though; just a dark cruel comedy which Shostakovich addressed with due seriousness, or the absence of it.

Barnes’s novel too deploys a fair shade of humor to address a grave subject. Shostakovich emerges neither as a defiant anti-communist hero nor the hopelessly broken individual from a Solzhenitsyn or Orwell text, but rather as a man who rebelled where possible, accepted fate where not.

Literary critics have accused Barnes of not adequately appreciating Shostakovich’s music. But NoT is not about understanding the man’s relation to his art, but about understanding the artist’s relation with power. Where Barnes fails is in his understanding of this power, or “Power” with capital P, as he would have it.

The real nature of Soviet totalitarianism

It is of course a misfortune that George Orwell’s lazy and shallow understanding of tyranny has dominated anti-Soviet literature. Barnes definitely has more depth than his predecessor – where Orwell would have inserted banal dialogue on fear and hyper-exaggerated scenes of torture to shock the reader, Barnes conveys horror through as simple a scenario of waiting by a lift. And the communists in NoT are not the power-hungry cynics of 1984.

When Shostakovich’s political instructor says to him, “There is no portrait on your walls of Comrade Stalin,” he does so earnestly. There is no hint of a threat from him, no attempt to manipulate the artist. And though Shostakovich never does adorn his wall with the image of the Great Helmsman, he is not taken to task. This is how Stalinism worked in reality. Contrary to what Orwell would have fantasised about, it wasn’t a regime of absolute terror and cynical punishment.

Yet Barnes, a political liberal, exposes his biases often. He takes cheap shots at communist sympathisers like Jean-Paul Sartre. It is likely that Barnes has not encountered the iconic French philosopher’s The Ghost of Stalin, one of the most penetrating critiques of Stalinism in the previous century.

One can speculate that a greater familiarity with such theoretical texts and the more insightful literary outputs of Soviet dissidents might have helped Barnes produce a novel that could better portray the nature of Soviet repression. Because some of his attempts at being philosophical, like “Tragedies in hindsight look like farces” or “Life was the cat that dragged the parrot downstairs by its tail” only give off the pungent odor of liberal senility. NoT does not have that acute perceptiveness on the specific nature of Soviet power that the novels of Victor Serge and Andrei Platonov show. The latter, who genuinely engaged with communist politics in their lives, could understand better how it went haywire in the USSR.

Stalin / Mao

Stalin was a bad Communist. But there was something of a Communist in him, which still prevented him from completely destroying the best elements of a culture which Soviet bureaucracy did its best to mutilate. One could say this was the reason why publicly denounced composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev were left alive. Relatively speaking, one of the safest places to be during the purges was in the Leningrad Philharmonic or the Kirov Ballet. Uncertainty was both terror and relief. What is uncertainty if not negative hope?

But even this would have been impossible for the composer in Maoist China. Chairman Mao, venerated as god by several on the Indian ultra-left, inflicted what can be termed an auto-genocide in the name of the “Cultural Revolution”. Anything too complicated for an illiterate peasant was smashed. The best artists of China faced grotesque humiliations, tortures and death, often, all three in that order. Mao was undoubtedly the greatest military strategist of the previous century. But what he did to Marxism is the equivalent of what Wahhabis did to Islam.

The other major criticism which can be laid on Barnes is that this biographical novel does not offer much psychoanalytical insight into Shostakovich’s private life. An acute reader can decipher a few crucial points from the passages on his domineering mother. Though Shostakovich’s mother restricted his decisions, her power was neither omniscient nor absolute.

Though tyrannical, it was flawed, it cracked, and despite the restrictions it placed, Shostakovich still had and could make his choice. Maybe Stalin is the political equivalent of the mother. And maybe that is why Stalinism is all the more horrifying – because despite everything, there still was a choice. One just did not know how and where to make it.

A voice for our times

Criticism apart, The Noise of Time is a voice for our times. Though the spectre of communism does not haunt Europe anymore, Western academia is held hostage by a worse regime of political correctness. Barnes need not fear being sent to the gulag for his bourgeois tendencies. But he may be purged from the curriculum of contemporary literature at SOAS or Berkeley because he is a “privileged White male.” Indeed, even those like Plato, Kant and Shakespeare have not been safe from such purges.

While mediocrities are promoted in the name of accommodating diversity, progressives shy away from supporting a literary mammoth like Salman Rushdie for the fear of offending small-minded bigots. Voluntary self-censorship and tolerance of the worst elements of the “Third World” are considered essential ingredients of the fight against “fascism”, whatever that term means now.

The “Power” that acts in the name of the powerless can be the most tyrannical of all powers – consider the killers who attacked Charlie Hebdo two years ago. Stalinism is not exceptional in its censorship of what it found politically incorrect. Nowadays, multicultural liberals in the West seem to have a better knack for this.

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes, Vintage Books.

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