This 2001 novella is set in the Soviet Union and tells the story of an old man the narrator meets whilst waiting for a delayed train (probably run by Southeastern ‘services’) to Moscow. I’m no detective but I know that any story set in Soviet Russia, waiting in the snow for a train that never comes, and beginning with an old man playing the piano in the dark and crying, is probably not going to end well. These are the benefits of a Cambridge education. You learn to work this sort of thing out quite quickly.
In these 106 pages you have all the misery of Soviet Russia, and the plight of the Homo Sovieticus (‘Soviet Man’) who has ‘lived through the Empire’s two great wars, survived the purges, the famines, but who nevertheless thinks he deserves nothing better than this resting place on a floor covered in spittle and cigarette ends’. The destruction of the intelligentsia, ostracization, ruptured families, unfulfilled lives, all of it told through the story of the old pianist. It is bleak, but it is beautifully written, with some life-affirming observations (the description of his lover’s body next to him being ‘simple bliss…a gentle, loving frontier, more substantial than any other truth in the world’), and the pianist’s act of rebellion at the end, in the face of humiliation, provides a slightly fist-pumping moment. It is essentially a (very short) treatise on life and what we try to make of it in difficult circumstances: ‘in this life there should be a key, a code for expressing, in concise and unambiguous terms, all the complexity of our attempts, so natural and so grievously confused, at living and loving’.
So, if someone gives you the old ‘I think Soviet Russia was probably ok’ line – happens at lot at house parties in Stoke Newington, in my experience – then you can hand them this book and say, ‘Here you are mate. As the song goes, I don’t know much about History, but I don’t think Soviet Russia was totally rad and here is a really short book about the 20th Century Russian experience that cuts out all the usual stuff about farming that plagues most Russian novels and demonstrates my point excellently.’ They may then reply with the familiar retort of ‘Well it’s not much better now, what with being a country essentially run by the ex-KGB, blighted by an even greater divide between rich and poor, as is capitalism’s wont’, but my usual tactic is just to run off screaming ‘I DON’T KNOW WHY WE HAVEN’T WORKED OUT HOW TO ENSURE EVERYONE IS SOCIETY IS LOOKED AFTER, WE CAN GET MEN TO THE MOON, WHY CAN’T WE SORT THIS STUFF OUT, THIS IS ENOUGH TO GET ME ON THE MAGIC MUSHROOMS’ and that usually swiftly ends the conversation.