So I did buy the book for its main topic – a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich. Actually, as I had not read any review of the book nor its cover, it took me a couple of pages to reach the point where I realised this was about Shostakovich. Or probably more precisely, about his moral struggle with the Soviet government.
The beginning breathes the dark brown stifling atmosphere of Kafka’s The Trial. Desperate, helpless, surrendering to untouchable power of bureaucratics.
Barnes writes how Shostakovich becomes famous as a composer but is not able to enjoy his success. He gets to visit the United States, but as a total puppet of the USSR politics. He holds speeches drenched with political statements, but including nothing of his own vision. The composer seems to half realise what he is doing, and seems to justify it for his family. So the story turns to Shostakovich courage, or lack thereof, his cowardness, betrayal, moral shame.
Barnes describes wonderfully how the oppression permeates every hole in the life of Shostakovich. It makes me wonder how he was still able to write such wonderful music.
Who does art belong to? The people? The state? The ‘big goal’?
Music in the USSR is played ‘as meant by the artist’, or ‘ strategic’ – meaning in accordance with the norms of socialist art.
But in music there is an purity. Something that can not be washed away by norms, politics, ethics, violence. A purity that stands the Noise of Time. Eternal. Context free. An undebatable truth.
And this purity in music probably explains how Shostakovich was able to continue to make his wonderful music, while being oppressed by this totalitarian regime.