The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge. Published by NYRB Editions. Originally published: 1950. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Russian.
Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Kibalchich, an anarchist and supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution who was born in Brussels, traveled in anarchist circles all over Europe and went to prison for his beliefs. He wrote many books of history and fiction and worked very hard to bring the evils of the Soviet system to light. The Case of Comrade Tulayev is his most famous novel and an ambitious attempt to do just that.
Comrade Tulayev, a highly-placed Communist official, is killed one night, and his murder throws all of Stalinist Russia and even Europe into disarray. Officials manufacture conspiracies out of whole cloth, accusing other officials both major and minor, people wholly innocent of the crime but guilty of other, less public sins. The real killer is no mystery. Serge shows an investigation out of control, trapping everyone from a spy to a provincial governor to a young woman living in Paris. Serge shows the inanity of the charges, the hopelessness of the system of justice and the inevitability of defeat for everyone except the one man we know actually committed the crime. It's fascinating and depressing, but highly readable and suspenseful at the same time.
The book's structure is roughly circular- it starts with the crime, then moves one character at a time through the rogue's gallery of suspects, then comes back around for the conclusion. One by one they are hauled in like fish, not so much guilty as unlucky to have fallen into the net. Once ensnared there is no escape. The first half of the book reads like a series of short stories about different men with no connection to each other but through Comrade Tulayev, who himself remains a cypher. In her excellent introduction, Susan Sontag compares one particularly good chapter to a Chekhov novella for its complexity and richness of character, and she's right. The chapter, focusing on a hard-nosed provincial official named Makeyev, is excellent- Serge has a talent for precision and economy of detail and the chapter flows beautifully from a brief biographical sketch to his unavoidable fate. I did not admire these men but in a way I pitied them as bystanders who don't deserve what happens to them.
The whole point of the book is underline the absurdity of the Stalinist Soviet Union, how it devoured the very people who brought it to life, and Serge does a good job, but it's not a very uplifting message and since it doesn't end very well for most of the characters, there's not much to take away. More and more people circle the drain as the book wears on, for Tulayev's death or for their role in the investigation. Soon no one is left unscathed, except the killer.
I liked the book well enough. I didn't love it and there were times when I found it dry and had to push myself through to the end. What captured my attention to begin with was the beginning- Serge starts the book with a fresh, lively anecdote about an ordinary man named Kostia, who, after having scrimped and saved for new shoes, splurges impulsively on a pretty trinket, just because it makes him happy. Later, another burst of emotion will explode this drab world like dynamite, but the opening anecdote is sweet and sad at the same time, and has a lot to say about regular people trying to find beauty and meaning in a world that is otherwise colorless and routine. When I read the opening in a bookstore I found it so charming I bought the book immediately and I wish that Serge had maintained some of that spirit throughout, and that he had written it with more of a continuous narrative. I found the short-story approach fractured and the tone dismal overall. In the latter half he circles back around to the men found guilty, and to the guilty man, and while a little of that initial freshness finds it way back into Kostia's story, for the rest there are no surprises and no hope, and I suppose that is the point after all.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.