Julian Barnes on the traces of one of Russia’s greatest composers: Shostakovich. In 1936, he waits for his arrest and possible execution. Twelve years later, the country is ruled by another man, but life is not much easier for musicians and yet he has to represent power on trips abroad. Another twelve years later, he continues to arrange his life within the narrow borders of the political system where he at the same time makes a career and is suppressed. Again the same time leap and he only wishes to finally leave the earth.
The author chose an interesting way of writing a kind of biography. Based on the available facts – which seems to have been much harder than one might think – Barnes composed a novel around major events in Shostakovich’s life and focuses on his feelings rather than on real action. In this way, the strings that Shostakovich was attached to become much more obvious and palpable and you can get a real idea of the time in Russia and the later Soviet Union. Especially the fact that no matter who rules and what this person’s opinion on music or composing, you were never free to express what is inside you and misinterpretation – either on purpose or not – was something you just had to accept.
This novel again can convince me not because there is much action and an interesting plot, but because Barnes manages to convey an atmosphere which slightly shifts but always stays tense and this keeps you, too, vigilant.