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June 22, 2017

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Coward, neurotic, master

EL RUIDO DEL TIEMPO, BY JULIAN BARNES  (ANAGRAMA); 202 PAGES, 325 PESOS.
EL RUIDO DEL TIEMPO, BY JULIAN BARNES (ANAGRAMA); 202 PAGES, 325 PESOS.
EL RUIDO DEL TIEMPO, BY JULIAN BARNES (ANAGRAMA); 202 PAGES, 325 PESOS.
By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald
More than a novel about Shostakovich — though it is that — Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time is an immersion in the mind of the great composer. In other words, of a pusillanimous person (there is there no law that everyone must be brave). A person who is a bit of a maniac in some personal details of his life. Who only wants to be left alone with the music he has a genius for. And who instead finds that his genius exposes him to lifelong arm-twisting by the second most murderous, and topmost mind-manipulating, regime in the history of the world.

Barnes chooses to start out with an anecdote involving a train that has halted at a station in the middle of nowhere (and Russian nowheres are really nowheres) in wartime. It contains telling details, like the passengers knowing better than to ask where they are, or how long the stop is expected to last, because the mere questions might mark them out as saboteurs. But overall, the incident plays like a parable, and a rather abstract and obscure one at that, with unnamed characters described as “the one who listened” or “the one who remembered.” The literary device may strike some readers as off-putting.

My advice is: persevere. What follows is a particularly acute analysis of both gross and subtle pressures in the relationship between reluctant individual and all-powerful authority. With an emphasis on the self-hate bred in the individual by the incessant, ever-greater concessions he is forced to make. (And the initial parable is closed at the end. It’s still a bit overdone, but at least it’s seen that it wasn’t merely an overly elaborate throat clearing for the text proper. It’s found to have a point, while, at the outset, readers don’t know that one will be arrived at. Unless, of course, they’ve been reassured in that regard by a friendly review.)

Since its main interest is in that Kafkaesque interaction between individual and power, El ruido del tiempo doesn’t attempt to be a full biography. In an afterword, Barnes himself gallantly recommends Elizabeth Wilson’s book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered “if you haven’t liked mine.” Yet, although this novel is built around three key moments in the musician’s life, at each one of them the hero/antihero recalls enough previous episodes for his complete life to emerge in outline.

Under Stalin, death could come at any moment. But Barnes shows how Shostakovich was forced to commit the greatest betrayal of his principles — even greater than having to publicly condemn his musical idol, Igor Stravinsky — not under Stalin but during the Khrushchev “spring” that followed. So much for those who’d like to think that Stalin was just an aberration, not a predictable consequence of setting up a one-party dictatorship.

Barnes doesn’t make reference to the work of his fellow British author George Orwell, but one can see that the greatest Shostakovich betrayal was a consequence of what Orwell showed so well: Big Brother can easily flick you away, but prefers you to love him first. And if Big Brother found it impossible to make Shostakovich love him, he could at least force him to make a public show of love.

There are devastating condemnations here of Western luminaries who readily allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by Stalin’s Russia, like George Bernard Shaw, or who embraced Communism outright, like Sartre or Picasso: “How easy it was to be a communist when you didn’t live under communism!” True, but Barnes, who is clearly thinking about the West when it’s under democratic rule, doesn’t mention that it also took guts to be a communist when under violently anti-Red regimes.

There’s a minor improbability in an incident showing Shostakovich’s brief renown in the US during a (miserable) visit there. He goes to a pharmacy for aspirin, and, Barnes says, it quickly puts up a sign, “Dmitri Dmitrievich buys here.” Really? A US store (not mentioned as being run by Russians) refers to him by his first name and patronymic, rather than surname? Customers would be baffled, and it’s unlikely to have been written that way.

Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, taken together, surely stand as one of the pinnacles of 20th-century art. Long ago I read, or heard over the radio, the remark that Shostakovich, when under pressure to compose something to the greater glory of Stalin or his achievements, would write whatever music he wanted, and simply give it the requisite title. Perhaps, up to a point, it was so. But The Noise of Time shows that it was also more complicated than that.

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