Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies
Christopher Wilson’s new novel takes us back in time while signalling contemporary concerns. It recalls the Cold War epoch, focussing on the ‘court’ of Josef Stalin, iron man of the Soviet Union and bogeyman of the capitalist powers, at a time in the early 1950s when he was ailing and his fellow Politburo members were angling to take his place.
Stalin has had a bad press, and no wonder. The historical record of his crimes, if not complete, is extensive enough to ensure that only the deluded and the massively ignorant could be in denial about it. He ruled a huge multinational empire for almost thirty years. A low-born Georgian (Lenin and Trotsky were rather snobby about him), after the Red Army had smashed the German war machine he sat at conferences as an equal with leaders of the Western democracies to reshape Europe.
So: who was that man? Such a figure is bound to attract fiction writers as well as historians and biographers; the most familiar Stalin-surrogate is Big Brother in 1984, both remote and ever-present. Raymond Williams authored a play and Martin Amis a novel, both entitled Koba (‘boss’), Stalin’s sobriquet. Christopher Wilson assuredly gives the reader Stalin as a rough, gruff boss-man, but also, in common with other Politburo members, as a child, an unrestrained ego. And the author chooses a child, Yuri, a brain-damaged boy of twelve, to narrate the story. It’s an adventurous, left-field way of touching on sensitive issues, both personal and political. What’s more, where Orwell loud-pedalled the squalor and immiseration Wilson plays it for laughs, even including a selection of taboo Soviet jokes aimed as much at Party doublethink as at living conditions.
Just the same, death is a haunting presence, not so much the elephant in the room as the room itself. As history, fabulation and gentle moral allegory intersect, questions pose themselves. What happens when a dictator dies? Can a murderous tyrant be funny? Can people be conclusively ‘disinvented’ (The Zoo’s equivalent of Orwell’s ‘Memory Hole’)?
The real-world Josef Stalin died in March 1953, and the power vacuum his death created was rapidly filled by a gruelling power struggle for the succession among his senior subordinates/accomplices. Wilson’s plotting parallels this with one significant exception (spoiler withheld). Thus Beria, the brutal security chief, ‘our Himmler’ as Stalin called him, becomes Bruhah; it’s Bruhah who hits and mutilates Yuri, not Koba. The crude ‘peasant’ Khrushchev, eventual winner of the flurry of intrigue and manoeuvring, appears as Krushka, Foreign Minister Molotov as Motolov, and so forth. As well as being horrid, spiteful children they are, in keeping with the novels’s title, animals, instinctual and predatory. What happens post-Koba in the novel then deviates from history as Yuri is freed from his job as chief food-taster to face some dizzying turns of fortune.
Wilson does not write with Orwell’s radical angst and indignation; The Zoo’s animal tropes and entertaining vibe take it nearer to Animal Farm than 1984. His style has been likened to Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘soft’ satire, whimsical and humane. But there are plenty of lines to be read between, and it struck me that one of the book’s serious concerns is the nature of knowledge, how it is acquired, transmitted, used, withheld, distorted. Yuri is Yuri Zipit, the son of Professor Zipit, specialist in Cordate Neurology and chief veterinarian at the Kapital Zoo. It’s no stretch to read the surname as a pointer to a society in which people have to think twice before uttering a candid opinion that contradicts the party line or bringing up an inconvenient fact. The suppression of free speech identifies a ‘post-truth’ society where the news is manufactured by the government and your everyday conversation can be earwigged by the security services. Alone together, the idiot-savant boy and the dying megalomaniac can avow the forbidden truth, crack the unlawful jokes. Their detachment from the norm gives them a privileged freedom, and Wilson makes the most of this, allowing Koba to shed hypocritical pretence and attack firstly love as ‘the chaotic wild card in the pack. The great disorganiser’, then the independent exchange of knowledge and opinion: ‘we must stop people loving. At least stop them loving each other…. And we must stop them thinking too. Thinking can be every bit as bad as loving.’
This is near-nihilism, the rhetoric of a crazed autocrat, not even Marxism for infants. Josef Petrovich fulminates against two great keystones of Western literature and ideology, agape and free thought (I was reminded here that in John le Carré’s Smiley’s People the rigid ideologue Karla, is indeed undone, and captured by Smiley, thanks to his love for a troubled daughter.) Whether love will save us or simply inure us is problematic, while the debate over the free circulation of thought has been sharpened by the rise of the social media. Governments seek to control or deny information, while social-media addicts can park their superegos and troll one another at will. ‘Hacking’ has gone international and political. The locked-down, totalitarian USSR that guaranteed social provision while refusing political liberty has been supplanted by what is effectively a gangster state. Is this progress, or otherwise?
These are thoughts that arise from reading a fiction that can be read at several levels – as straightforward humour, as a political cautionary tale, as an instructive historical satire. Wilson’s humorous touch is deft. It lightens the darkness without denying it. Readers who might wish a grimmer close-up of the horrors and moral bankruptcy of Stalinism could read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940).
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Christopher Wilson, The Zoo, (Faber & Faber: London, 2017). 978-0-571-33445-2, 230 pp., hardback.
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