A man steps from a train wearing amulets made of garlic. He stands all night, with a small suitcase packed, waiting for the lift doors to open. The fate of his opera, and therefore his life, is determined behind a screen. His interrogator, having prepared him for the worst, unaccountably disappears. In the Land of the Free, where any question can be asked, they want to know if he likes brunettes or blondes. His name appears under articles he has not written. Banned, unbanned, it feels much the same.
The structure of a book, like everything else about it, contributes to the author’s purpose and the reader’s response. By recounting The Noise of Time in this episodic, non-chronological way Julian Barnes creates an impression of someone cut adrift by the capriciousness, sadism and incompetence of tyranny. There are no fixed points any more. The past changes daily. Friends betray you. Truth, lies: they change places all the time. The figure observed squinting in this spotlight is Dmitri Shostakovich, most gifted of Soviet-era composers, most compromised as well. Heroism is not the subject here but survival: bewildered, squalid, often unexplained. Dmitri Dmitrievich is hapless socially, rootless politically and not infrequently envious of the dead. Only music, its writing and performing, matters to him which makes this portrait of the artist so downbeat and so painfully honest. Not that his peers fare much better. Stravinsky, coining it in the States, is a prima donna. Prokofiev sells his soul for a succession of flashy cars. And in case any Cold War triumphalism intrudes, America is portrayed as a nightmare of shallow commercialism, where art falls short of being serious because, however lavish the rewards, the stakes are so miserably low.
Barnes is a peerless tactician, never once stating the obvious, allowing the nightmare he describes to speak for itself. The prose is precise, sardonic and self-aware. His appreciation for the subtleties of Russian culture is lightly worn (the recurrence of old sayings, the fact that even Stalin can be addressed by his first name and patronymic). The lickspittles and nonentities who serve the General Secretary are largely condemned out of their own mouths. The general awfulness is not overdone. This reluctance to adopt a moral, still less moralising position adds to the dismayed but detached tone of the book, which exists in the ever-more fertile ground that has opened up between fact and fiction. Cowering or collaborating, Shostakovich cuts a memorable but pitiable figure whose flawed humanity brings us face-to-face with that most uncomfortable of questions: in his place, what would I have done?