Tyrant re­vived in an in­tense who­dunit

One Night in Win­ter

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

By Si­mon Se­bag Mon­te­fiore Cen­tury, 480pp, $32.95

SI­MON Se­bag Mon­te­fiore’s grip­ping new novel about fam­ily loy­al­ties in Stal­in­ist Rus­sia chal­lenges Tol­stoy’s fa­mous open­ing line to Anna Karen­ina: ‘‘ All happy fam­i­lies re­sem­ble one an­other, each un­happy fam­ily is un­happy in its own way.’’

In One Night in Win­ter the golden chil­dren of par­ents who be­long to the gov­ern­ing elite are sus­pected by Stalin and his se­cret po­lice of be­ing mem­bers of an anti-Soviet con­spir­acy. When taken in for ques­tion­ing and threat­ened with death or the gu­lag, the dis­traught par­ents of each rup­tured fam­ily be­have in the same way, in­wardly suc­cumb­ing to men­tal break­down but out­wardly grin­ning and bear­ing it lest they show signs of weak­ness and dis­loy­alty to the party and its great leader.

This makes for dif­fi­cult and af­fect­ing read­ing, but not once are the loy­al­ties of the reader tested: Mon­te­fiore’s char­ac­ters snare our sym­pa­thy and we fol­low them avidly to the end to dis­cover their fates.

The novel be­gins in Moscow in June 1945, the day of the vic­tory pa­rade. War is over and a city cel­e­brates, but the peace is bro­ken when two chil­dren are shot dead.

Mon­te­fiore then takes us back sev­eral weeks and in­tro­duces us to the priv­i­leged chil­dren of em­i­nent fam­i­lies who at­tend School 801, the best in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal. A small co­terie has formed a se­cret group called the Fa­tal Ro­man­tics’ Club. When two of its mem­bers are shot, the au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gate, believ­ing the group’s wor­ship of Pushkin is a front for a plot to over­throw the govern­ment.

Soon no one is above sus­pi­cion, es­pe­cially black-sheep pupil An­drei, who is tainted for be­ing the son of an en­emy of the peo­ple, and teacher Benya, who is still on thin ice af­ter years spent in ex­ile.

So far, so who­dunit, al­beit one in an im­pres­sive his­tor­i­cal coat­ing. How­ever, Mon­te­fiore de­liv­ers his mas­ter­stroke by pan­ning away from the no­tion of guilt in the chil­dren. Seeds of doubt ger­mi­nate in the warped minds of their ruth­less in­ter­roga­tors as to whether the chil­dren’s par­ents may in fact be mem­bers of the party un­faith­ful. Sud­denly the chil­dren, some as young as six and 10, are tricked or co­erced into de­nounc­ing and tes­ti­fy­ing against friends and fam­ily.

What even­tu­ally comes to light, though, are not in­cen­di­ary counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary plots but il­licit love af­fairs. No dam­age is done to the in­vin­ci­ble Soviet ma­chine, only to the less sturdy mech­a­nisms of the hu­man heart.

One Night in Win­ter finds Mon­te­fiore shut­tling be­tween his twin oc­cu­pa­tions of his­to­rian and nov­el­ist. The book’s con­spir­acy strand, a true story, was chron­i­cled in full in Mon­te­fiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004) and he dis­tils its es­sen­tials and fic­tion­alises them with help from non­his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters. Sev­eral key char­ac­ters even reap­pear from his 2008 novel, Sashenka. All of which, it should be made clear, comes over as ju­di­cious bor­row­ing, not lazy re­cy­cling.

One Night in Win­ter is at its most orig­i­nal when it con­cerns the Man of Steel him­self, who ap­pears reg­u­larly as a char­ac­ter. This is a dif­fer­ent Stalin from the one Mon­te­fiore pre­sented in his ac­claimed 2008 bi­og­ra­phy Young Stalin. Equally well drawn, this one is

One Night in Win­ter

Stalin makes reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances in

and steals ev­ery scene

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