Jovial guide to Stal­in­ism

The Zoo

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS&BOOKS - John Boyne

By Christo­pher Wil­son Faber & Faber, £12.99

Po­lit­i­cal satire has been all the rage in book­shops ever since the un­ex­pected events of last Novem­ber. Sin­clair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Hap­pen Here, which de­scribes the elec­tion of a fear­mon­ger­ing dem­a­gogue to the US pres­i­dency, has be­come a best­seller while Howard Ja­cob­son’s Pussy was ap­par­ently writ­ten in a flurry of out­rage around the same time as Hil­lary Clin­ton was rocking back and forth in her ho­tel suite, arms wrapped around her knees, whis­per­ing “no… no…” to any­one who would lis­ten.

Now Christo­pher Wil­son has en­tered the fray, not with a satire on the Don­ald but on Amer­ica’s tra­di­tional en­emy, Rus­sia, set­ting a novel dur­ing the clos­ing months of Josef Stalin’s life, when he suf­fered a se­ries of strokes that left both him and the 15 Soviet Re­publics over which he ruled in a trau­ma­tised state.

The Zoo is nar­rated by 12- year- old Yuri Zipit, the son of an ele­phan­tol­o­gist at the Kap­i­tal Zoo, who un­ex­pect­edly finds him­self in­stalled as Stalin’s of­fi­cial food taster. It’s not a job with a great fu­ture, his em­ployer con­cedes. “I had a food taster be­fore, and one be­fore that, and one be­fore that. But none of them stuck to the task. They were all al­ler­gic to tox­ins. Each in his dif­fer­ent way. One was sen­si­tive to strych­nine. And an­other was al­ler­gic to cyanide.”

At first, Yuri – who was struck by a milk truck when he was six leav­ing him with some prob­lems in the “think­ing de­part­ments” – be­lieves that the old man ly­ing in the bed sim­ply looks like the Great Leader but when he re­alises the truth he’s blasé about the whole thing. In fact, he’s more con­cerned about the well-be­ing of his fa­ther who has gone miss­ing and com­mu­ni­cates with him solely through the oc­ca­sional cheer­ful let­ter that, quite clearly, has not been writ­ten by him at all.

The suc­cess of a novel like this de­pends largely on the voice of its nar­ra­tor and Yuri is a jovial guide through the dy­ing days of Stal­in­ism. By na­ture of his du­ties he be­comes “a light smoker and a heavy­ish drinker”, and while his con­ver­sa­tions with the gen­eral sec­re­tary are of­ten amus­ing, a more men­ac­ing as­pect lies be­neath their sur­face.

Stalin is ap­palled by Yuri’s happy child­hood. “Did your fa­ther and mother not beat you?” he asks. “Vi­ciously? With­out rea­son? Like proper par­ents? Does your mother not hit you hard, for noth­ing, morn­ings and evenings with a wooden spoon, or a broom­stick?” No, replies Yuri, for his is a house of kind­ness in a coun­try filled with dread. How­ever, the re­al­i­ties of Soviet life are brought to the fore when Yuri points out his mother couldn’t have beaten him any­way, for she’s been ex­iled to a work camp.

The sin­is­ter el­e­ments to The Zoo sit com­fort­ably along­side the com­edy. Hov­er­ing around Stalin’s sick room wait­ing for him to die, the gen­er­als are filled with anx­i­ety about who might suc­ceed him while out­side the walls the Rus­sian peo­ple are ter­ri­fied of ex­press­ing opin­ions on any­thing in case they’re re­ported as anti-party and dragged off to a Gu­lag prison camp. De­spite Stalin’s own as­ser­tion that gai­ety was the most out­stand­ing fea­ture of the Soviet Union, the novel seems clouded in dark­ness and trep­i­da­tion with only the sim­ple-minded Yuri, our re­li­ably un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor, bring­ing a sense of op­ti­mism to the story.

Claus­tro­pho­bic set­ting

If there are flaws to The Zoo it’s that it quickly be­comes repet­i­tive. Very lit­tle hap­pens and once the ini­tial con­ceit has been played for most of its laughs it lingers in a state of paral­y­sis, much like Stalin him­self, un­cer­tain how to draw drama from the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a de­vel­op­men­tally chal­lenged child and a dy­ing dic­ta­tor. Per­haps Wil­son re­alises this, for the novel is short and does not out­stay its wel­come. At times though, one longs for it to have be­gun a few years ear­lier, while Stalin was still in good health, so the ac­tion could have been broad­ened out from its claus­tro­pho­bic set­ting to a por­trait of a liv­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­stead of a dy­ing an­i­mal.

Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has cited Ernest Hem­ing­way and Jack Lon­don as two of his favourite writ­ers, manly nov­el­ists who em­braced the out­door life. This is very much an in­door life novel, full of small, dark rooms where voices are held just above a whis­per for fear of in­crim­i­na­tion, so Putin may not en­joy it but as a satire on the slip­ping away of all-en­com­pass­ing power, it makes for an en­ter­tain­ing, if un­re­mark­able, read.

John Boyne’s lat­est novel is The Heart’s In­vis­i­ble Furies ( Doubleday)

In our boom and bust era, the per­sonal tra­jec­tory of a writer like Scott Fitzger­ald is read­ily un­der­stood. Fitzger­ald’s great suc­cess, both fi­nan­cial and artis­tic, at a very early age, co­in­cided with the ma­jor shift in Amer­i­can so­cial his­tory that oc­curred in the wake of the Great War. The 1920s was a decade when it seemed all of Amer­ica par­tied, and then top­pled in 1929 into the maw of the Great De­pres­sion.

Fitzger­ald had pub­lished This Side of Par­adise at the age of 23 and fol­lowed it only five years later with The Great Gatsby. He was a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the pop­u­lar Satur­day Evening Post and be­com­ing a house­hold name. Soon he was to be­come the ex­pli­ca­tor of that mas­sive gen­er­a­tional shift, the new zeit­geist, to both the older gen­er­a­tion and to many of the equally baf­fled young. All this would sug­gest that Fitzger­ald was an em­bod­i­ment of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the new age, both so­ci­etal and per­sonal.

David S Brown’s bi­og­ra­phy of the au­thor ar­gues strongly that Fitzger­ald was temperamentally far from the Jazz Age poster boy he was seen to be, but rather a nos­tal­gic be­liever in a much ear­lier code of hon­our, dili­gence and mod­er­a­tion char­ac­ter­is­tic of the an­te­bel­lum south that lin­gered into the first decade of the 20th cen­tury.

Brown, a his­to­rian, has pro­duced a bi­og­ra­phy about a writer who, since his death in 1940, has oc­ca­sioned mul­ti­ple bi­ogra­phies and thou­sands of crit­i­cal works which make much use of bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. And that list does not in­clude the crowded ter­rain of works on Fitzger­ald’s wife, Zelda, nor on their set, their era and the world of ex­pat artists in Paris in which the Fitzger­alds usu­ally fig­ure promi­nently.

Mixed her­itage

Par­adise Lost places con­sid­er­able im­por­tance on Fitzger­ald’s mixed her­itage. There is the Mary­land landed gen­try fam­ily that was his fa­ther’s ( a photo shows the young Scott’s mem­ber­ship card in The Chil­dren of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion – as close as Amer­ica gets to De­brett’s). His mother, Mol­lie McQuil­lan, of Co Fer­managh stock, brought the hard-earned cash of a gro­cery for­tune to the mar­riage, and a rather outré per­son­al­ity which em­bar­rassed her pam­pered son through­out his life. Fitzger­ald’s ge­neal­ogy has echoes that will be fa­mil­iar to Ir­ish read­ers. He shared with Joyce a de­graded pa­ter­nal lin­eage, re­sult­ing in the lost birthright of the au­thor- sons with re­sul­tant chips on the shoul­der and a ten­dency to dis­so­lute liv­ing.

Fitzger­ald was far more am­biva­lent about Catholi­cism than Joyce, and Brown’s ex­plo­ration of the phe­nom­e­non of Amer­i­can cross­over Catholi­cism gives in­sight into his fic­tion. Fitzger­ald’s par­ents chose a Catholic east-coast prep school that specif­i­cally avoided groom­ing boys for elite Catholic uni­ver­si­ties like Boston Col­lege and Georgetown, in favour of lo­cal Ivy League col­leges like Penn and Prince­ton, the lat­ter be­ing Scott’s even­tual choice.

Brown has a ten­dency to re­peat his un­der­pin­ning the­ses – such as Fitzger­ald’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the old Con­fed­er­acy, his in­se­cu­rity about his size and lack of phys­i­cal

This new bi­og­ra­phy man­ages to get past the trap­pings of Fitzger­ald’s boozy Flap­per Era per­sona and to credit his tal­ent for tak­ing the pulse of the Amer­ica in which he lived

prow­ess, and his propen­sity for hero-wor­ship well into adult­hood. The au­thor also man­ages his own nar­ra­tive awk­wardly at times, hav­ing to dou­ble-back to iden­tify peo­ple or events on a sec­ond ap­pear­ance within his pages. There are also strange omis­sions. There is no ref­er­ence to Mar­garet Mitchell’s en­vi­able Pulitzer suc­cess with her novel Gone with the Wind, al­though Fitzger­ald was one of many script doc­tors on David O Selznick’s Os­car-win­ning film that fol­lowed. In Mitchell’s brave and gen­tle­manly Ash­ley Wilkes, Fitzger­ald would likely have seen near-per­fect male at­tributes. Brown is also given to con­struct­ing ne­ol­o­gisms such as “civ­i­liza­tional” and “mixed mind­ed­ness”.

Par­adise Lost ac­com­plishes much in its aim to con­tex­tu­alise Fitzger­ald within both Amer­i­can his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary his­tor­i­cal pa­ram­e­ters. This new bi­og­ra­phy man­ages to get past the trap­pings of Fitzger­ald’s boozy Flap­per Era per­sona and to credit his tal­ent for tak­ing the pulse of the Amer­ica in which he lived.

In one of Fitzger­ald’s finest sto­ries, The Rich Boy, a wealthy age­ing bach­e­lor wan­ders Man­hat­tan’s de­serted sum­mer streets re­call­ing past so­cial sea­sons and venues, and al­le­gor­i­cal The Di­a­mond as Big as the Ritz, with its sin­is­ter Brad­dock Wash­ing­ton, whose Trumpian do­main is where Amer­i­can rule of law ends.

The IOU, from 1920, is a satire on com­mer­cial pub­lish­ing just as rel­e­vant in its cyn­i­cism to­day as it would have been nearly a cen­tury ago, and all the more note­wor­thy as a tren­chant ex­am­ple of a writer wil­fully bit­ing the hand that was feed­ing him. Writ­ten more than a decade later, Night­mare (Fan­tasy in Black), set in a men­tal hos­pi­tal (of which by then the Fitzger­alds had had much first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence) was with­held from pub­li­ca­tion in part be­cause ed­i­tors of var­i­ous mag­a­zines be­lieved the world in 1932 was bleak enough. Travel To­gether, from 1935, high­lights sev­eral images and re­cur­rent the­matic pre­oc­cu­pa­tions fa­mil­iar to Fitzger­ald read­ers – beck­on­ing green lights in­dica­tive of hope, mul­ti­ple watch­ful eyes and a fas­ci­na­tion with modes of trans­port. A tale that holds to­gether well, it too was never printed be­cause the au­thor wanted to pol­ish it more be­fore let­ting it go.

The ti­tle story of the vol­ume dates from the same pe­riod. It is a sui­cide story, and is set in the re­sort town of Asheville, North Carolina, where Fitzger­ald had been sent for a rest cure, and where he had tried to take his own life. The story is pop­u­lated by Hol­ly­wood types he would have known well by then, al­though the lan­guage is of­ten redo­lent of The Great Gatsby and its world.

Each of th­ese short works is pref­aced by a de­tailed head­note, plac­ing it within the con­text of Fitzger­ald’s life and ca­reer. Not all the se­lec­tions in­cluded are fully re­alised sto­ries; there are a cou­ple of im­por­tant frag­ments and three are film-script sce­nar­ios. Re­pro­duc­tions of type­script pages show the au­thor’s hand­writ­ten notes. I’d Die for You is a spe­cial­ist’s vol­ume with a good deal of tex­tual ap­pa­ra­tus, but read­ers in­ter­ested in the process by which writ­ers evolve will pore over th­ese pages. Fitzger­ald fans will be glad there is some­thing more for them to dis­cover about a writer who may have died be­fore he reached his full po­ten­tial.

Christina Hunt Ma­hony is a re­search fel­low at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin who writes about con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture

F Scott Fitzger­ald with his wife Zelda and daugh­ter Frances in Paris. PHOTOGRAPH: HUL­TON ARCHIVE/GETTY

Soviet dic­ta­tor Josef Stalin with his daugh­ter Svet­lana Alliluyeva. PHOTOGRAPH: AP/COUR­TESY ICARUS FILMS

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