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Simon Sebag-Montefiore is better known as a historian than a writer of sweeping romantic epics and this is his first novel and the first of a trilogy of novels set in Stalinist Russia. This one os set in three different time periods, 1916 and the lead up to the Russian Revolution where the 16 year old Sashenka, priviledged daughter of a rich Jewish businessman is working secretly for the Bolshevieks, 1939 where Sashenka, utterly loyal party member, is married and has managed to skate unscathed through the Stalinist purges of the last three years and 1994 when a young History student is asked to research a family history. Simon S-S is obviously an expert historian and in places his sheer skill in evoking a place, a period is absolutely suberb, particularly in the section set in the Stalinist era. There you could feel the uneasy mix of complacency that as a good Party member nothing was ever going to happen to you combined with a constant unease and refusal to acknowledge what was really going on as well as the memory of friends who had become 'non-people'. However I couldn't help feeling he took Writing Romantic Saga 101 lessons from his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, for the romantic/sagaish elements often don't seem to sit very easily. He gets flowery, dwells too much on looks and Sashenka's worry that her bosom is "too noticeable" (I cannot recall any of my three daughters or their friends ever complaining aout too much frontage when they were 16!) - apparently the last two books in the series are more in thriller mode and I suspect they will suit his style better. In addition the last section has far too many unlikely co-incidences and relies strongly on people living to iimprobably great ages (one is 102 or more, others mid 90's). That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book which I wouldn't have picked up if it hadn't been our book group Summer Read. With all its faults, it's still a very good read and the middle section is truly memorable.
The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life. And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously. Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit. In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel. *****