Not since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has an author captured the crushing sense of foreboding that hung over Uncle Joe's Soviet state with the clear-eyed acuity that imbues every page of Robert Littell's The Stalin Epigram. It's almost like being dropped onto the surface of an alien planet, this strange world of pre-war Stalinist Russia, where poets' words are read not only by the masses but also by the nation's leaders, where a cutting couplet can draw real blood.
Littell, best known for Cold War thrillers such as The Company and The Sisters, proves himself to be both a gentleman and a scholar in his latest novel, a spellbinding and painstakingly researched account of poet Osip Mandelstam's most famous work, "The Stalin Epigram," often referred to as his "sixteen-line death sentence."
Spun out in an interlocking web of narratives, including those of the poet, his wife, Stalin's bodyguard, an Olympic weightlifter and others, the book paints a vivid, three-dimensional portrait of the emotional, political and physical carnage wrought by Mandelstam's literary Molotov cocktail. And yet, The Stalin Epigram is also a love story, set against a richly nuanced historical backdrop in the grand tradition of Doctor Zhivago (written by Mandelstam's friend Boris Pasternak, who plays a recurring role in this novel). But it's a quintessentially Russian love story, which virtually guarantees that the rose's thorn will outlive its petals.
In the words of Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda, "What I am recounting does not originate in the lobe of the brain where memory resides. It comes directly from the mind's eye. . . . When, on occasion, I recall these awful events, they have the odor of earth at a freshly dug grave."
But even in the horrors of the Gulag, the rockiest of soils and the harshest of environments, the triumphant spirit of the poet's tenderness can not, will not, be eradicated: "I kiss your eyes, I kiss the tears that spill from them should this letter by some miracle reach you. Still dancing." Bravo, comrade.
Thane Tierney, a longtime fan of the Dynamo Moscow hockey team, lives in Los Angeles.