Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Commissariat of Enlightenment

A review of Ken Kalfus’s novel The Commissariat of Enlightenment; appeared in the Toronto Star in 2003.

Ken Kalfus’s first novel takes revolutionary Russia as its backdrop, and vividly depicts the horrors of the period. At one point, the protagonist of The Commissariat of Enlightenment considers the state of his country, wracked by war and famine: “Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them.”

A perfectly plausible observation for that character in that situation – but also a clear allusion to Stalin’s famous line about one death being a tragedy, a million a statistic. Blending a sense of immediacy with an authorly wink at the modern reader, the passage is emblematic of the book as a whole.

Kalfus, an American, comes by his subject matter honestly. He lived in Russia for several years, and he’s previously published a short-story collection, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, set entirely in that country, ranging over various periods in its history. In his first novel, events leading up to and following the Russian Revolution illustrate the sweeping cultural changes of the early 20th century – changes still being felt the world over, long after the demise of the Soviet state.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment begins in 1910, as journalists and other opportunists converge on the isolated village of Astopovo, where Leo Tolstoy lies dying. It’s a proverbial media circus, with reporters, agitators, entrepreneurs, and Tolstoy’s wife, children, and disciples all jostling and competing. A couple of revolutionaries are in Astopovo, too – Lenin and Stalin watch the action from the sidelines with vague notions of using Tolstoy’s death to stir civil unrest. (As Kalfus notes in an afterword, he takes some liberties with the historical record here.)

Also on hand is Gribshin, the book’s central character. A young Russian dazzled by the new medium of film, he’s working as a cinematographer for the French news company Pathé Frères. As he vies for footage, he learns some important lessons about the iconic power of the moving picture, and the ways it can be manipulated. After Tolstoy’s death, the action fast-forwards to the early years of the Communist regime, and Gribshin puts those lessons into action. Now renamed Astopov and serving as an official in the state’s propaganda division (the commissariat of the book’s title), he seeks to sell the people on the glory of the revolution.

The latter half of the book takes the form of a series of set pieces: a standoff with peasants in a rural church, an avant-garde theatre troupe’s rehearsal, a disastrous attempt to recreate the seizure of the Kremlin for a propaganda film. All are exciting, and Kalfus’s prose is sharp and sure-footed throughout, displaying the skill he honed in his short stories. The dawn of the motion picture makes a nice hook for an exploration of iconography, celebrity, and propoganda, and the way each affects the others.

The book’s discrete episodes aren’t really integrated into a larger narrative, though, and often they strain to make thematic points. When Yelena, a subordinate of Astopov’s, shows him a proto-porn film, he has a vision of the MTV age, a future “where unconnected images were ubiquitous and drenched in sex and noise. Here men were buffeted by so many visual representations, so much experience, that they were unable to make sense of their lives.” Like most of the book’s significant musings, this one depends for its effect on the reader’s historical hindsight. The subject is then closed and filed away; Yelena, who had seemed an important character, is never seen again.

In fact, there is little sense of Kalfus’s fictional people struggling with personal dilemmas that illuminate the novel’s political background and themes. He can pull that off – he’s already done so expertly in the novella “Peredelkino,” the highlight of Pu-239. The tale of a complacent Brezhnev-era novelist and writers’ union official, the piece renders a milieu of court intrigue while grappling with questions of literary worth and the free market, artistic envy and community, state support and repression. Resisting easy conclusions, “Peredelkino” is both a novella of ideas and a believable character study.

In Commissariat, in contrast, Gribshin/Astopov remains eternally flat and affectless, and Kalfus shows little interest in the personality or fate of his protagonist. Which is perhaps the point. The novel’s final chapter lingers over Lenin’s embalmed corpse, playfully evoking an image of individual will powerless before the march of history. The narrative as a whole makes a similar point – but makes some sacrifices to do so.

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