A wonderfully funny novel about one of the darkest periods of history when the former USSR was under the ruthless control of the ‘man of iron’ Josef Stalin.
This biting satire is narrated by Yuri, an engagingly innocent twelve year old, who lives in the staff apartment of the Kapital Zoo where his father is Professor of Vetinary Science. Yuri is epileptic and, after an accident involving a milk truck and a tram, ‘damaged. But only in my body. And mind. Not my spirit, which is strong and unbroken’. He’s an idiot savant with the face of ‘an angel on his best behaviour’ which makes people constantly confide in him.
When his father is required to treat a patient who ‘bears some strong resemblances to Comrade Iron Man’, Yuri goes with him. Clearly it is Stalin and he is diagnosed as being at risk of a stroke. His father is taken away but, because of his angelic face, Yuri becomes Stalin’s ‘official food taster, technician first class’, attending to the leader’s every whim. For Yuri his friendship ‘seems a dark, scary place’ but he has no choice. He begins a life of games of draughts, food-tasting and endless evenings of heavy drinking and American movies. Stalin loves cowboy films with Gary Cooper but hates the ‘odious cowboy actor’ John Wayne who is ‘an enemy of the proletariat.’ In his new role ‘fulfilling the demands of the job’ Yuri becomes, ‘at only twelve years of age, both a light smoker and a heavyish drinker.’ One of the funniest scenes shows us an evening watching the 30s comedy Bringing up Baby ‘a screwball komedy. Showing the decadence and futility of Amerikan life.’
Underlying the comedy of course there is the darkest atmosphere of terror, torture and fear administered by Stalin’s political coterie. Yuri has his nose broken by the sinister Bruhah and finds out how easily people disappear, erased from photos: ‘no man, no problem’. The terrifying Krushka describes his own role: ‘So many bullets. So many lists. So many pits to be dug. So much quicklime. It’s Hell itself to organise.’
On a marginally brighter note, Yuri finds friends in one of the men who act as body doubles for Stalin with ‘pock marks burned in his cheeks with acid’. But the situation is deteriorating. When the ‘man of steel’ has a stroke, everything becomes much worse for Yuri and he is eventually thrown into jail and at the mercy of the system, losing a finger to the torturer, Bruhah.
Of course, as this is a comedy it all turns out (comparatively) well for Yuri. He goes home, his spirit undaunted and waits for his father to return ‘It’s just a matter of patience. And never letting any dark doubt cloud your horizon.’ A bitter sweet ending, but, after a rollercoaster of hilarity and grim detail, it’s a message of hope. As in the epigraph at the beginning of the novel from Emily Dickinson:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
Published by Faber in July 2017