Power & creativity

Power & creativity

Power & creativity

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes
 Random House
2016, pp 192, Rs 699

When Julian Barnes was all of 10, his mother told him he had too much imagination. He seems to have combined that attribute with reality while penning The Noise of Time, a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer who lived through the turbulent times of Stalin and Khrushchev.

And so the narrative begins! A man stands by the elevator in his apartment block while the rest of the world readies to sleep. He waits, a small bag by his side, expecting to be picked up by Power and its lackeys and taken to the Big House from where not many have returned. This would be the start of a horror tale; unfortunately this was fact under Stalin’s Russia where not conforming to the authorities meant oblivion, metaphorically as well as literally. Dmitri waits for many nights; to him, the likelihood of being detained is strong since his latest opera has not gone down well with Stalin and his minions, who believe his musical work to be elitist and not for the masses, as should be in a communist state.

This makes the composer an enemy of the people, thus deserving punishment. Pravda, the mouthpiece of the government, even terms the opera “muddle instead of music”. Soon, friends shun him. Critics who had earlier lauded his work retract their words and shame him for his supposedly crass work. Dmitri now knows that even his associates in high places will not be able to help him anymore in this tussle between Power and Creativity. His interview with Stalin’s underling does not go down well and he returns home but with a second interview ominously slated for a few days later. Fate plays a card, however, and his interviewer falls out of grace of Power and disappears before the second meeting can take place.

A composer and a coal miner in Stalin’s Russia were both considered state properties for all practical purposes. Both were expected to increase their output, with one expected to warm people’s hearts, and the other their bodies. This meant composing music that the man on the street could hum along instead of creating operas that could be understood only by connoisseurs. Despite misgivings, Dmitri is not brave enough to go against the rules of the state. He is scared for himself and his family consisting of his wife and 2 kids. So he compromises and gives the authorities what they want despite pricks of his conscience. This reinstates him with the authorities even though he is ashamed of himself for caving in.

The Noise of Time records the tussle between Power and Creativity with the man seemingly giving in to the wishes of Power; at the same time he manages to get a bit of his own back by subtle means and assuage his conscience somewhat. The ups and downs of Dmitri’s life take the reader through his public and personal shame and humiliation as a stooge of Stalin and Khrushchev. He is appointed as a representative of the country during a visit to its arch enemy, the US, where he faces uncomfortable situations with the press and responds with a script that is given to him by the authorities with no input from him whatsoever. He seethes inside but has no option except to toe the line in order to stay in Power’s good books and save not only his own life, but that of his family as well.

Dmitri is even rewarded with appointment as chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers towards the later part of his life. Even his opera that was banned at the start of the tale is allowed to be presented with minor modifications under a new title. His frustration and shame is brought out well in the dark narration by Barnes. The suffocating feeling experienced by artistes permeates the story. The work has no plot to speak of; it’s more of a narration by the composer, but in the words of Barnes. The meticulous research done by the author unmasks the pervading despair and gloom, and transports the reader to the dark days.

However, the book traces the life of Dmitri the composer; there’s barely any depiction of him as a family man. His parents, wife and children are mere mentions in the story, with no characterisation whatsoever. As a result, the reader does not get to know the protagonist as a whole person. But that is a minor glitch in an otherwise wonderfully-crafted book that can be slow in parts and the equivalent of a documentary. But it succeeds in what it attempts to do: bring out the battle an artiste faces with authority and conscience in a totalitarian state.

Aside: Dmitri has been mentioned and his music snippets played in the recent film Bridge of Spies!

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