In 1936 a Russian man spends night after night sitting by the elevator of his building fully expecting to be taken away to be killed. Dmitri Dmitrievich is a successful composer whose work has been judged by an editorial as contravening the ideals of the Soviet Union. He wants to avoid trouble for his wife and young daughter who sleep nearby so waits outside his door with a packed suitcase. He’s made to live in a perpetual state of terror expecting secret police to seize him at any minute. Over years of intense scrutiny and being batted around by the ruling political powers, his immense talent and passion for his music is slowly twisted. It provokes questions about the meaning and value of art when it’s trampled on by the overriding political forces it’s created under. The novel is composed in triptych form capturing Dmitri’s feelings at three very different points of his life. Spaced in twelve year intervals it also makes a fascinating portrait of the Soviet Union at significantly different stages of its existence. Inspired by the real-life Russian composer Shastakovich, “The Noise of Time” asks how the pure intentions of music fare when played against the clamorous dogma of reigning ideologies.

One of the great challenges of reading any novel set in Russia is trying to keep track and comprehend the flurry of names which appear. Many people have triple-barrel names, each of which is intermittently used and sometimes variations of those names are used in place of the proper names. This simply poses a practical problem for a reader, but I’ve never found it really detracts from my enjoyment of a novel – especially when it’s as powerful and elegantly told as this one. My strategy is to keep a list of the primary characters while reading and, after a time, the story washes over me to a point where I know who is who. Another challenge is entering into Soviet Russia’s complex and extensive history of which I only have a bare bones understanding. I didn’t find this to be a problem though as long as you have a broad understanding of Communist Russian and Stalin’s life – who plays an integral part in the story. Really this is a novel about the fate of artists under the rule of tyrants. Its universal meaning can be strongly felt even if you don’t get some of the nuances of the world in which it is historically set.

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  Dmitrievich keeps on his bedside table a postcard of  The Tribute Money  by Titian – painting where the Romans try to bribe Christ for their own political motives.

Dmitrievich keeps on his bedside table a postcard of The Tribute Money by Titian – painting where the Romans try to bribe Christ for their own political motives.

One of the most fascinating sections is when Dmitri goes on a state-approved tour of America. He’s much lauded in other nations even if some of his work is still banned in his own country. The Soviet Union try to use him as a pawn to present their country as less oppressive and more open. But the effect of this ultimately fails: “Scrub, scrub, scrub, let’s wash away all this old Russianness and paint a shiny new Sovietness on top. But it never worked – the paint began to flake off almost as soon as it was applied. To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic.” Instead of being inspired by the “freedoms” supposedly found in the US and other western nations, Dmitri feels how they are both played and play into political forces which seek to suppress opposition to their power. He also hilariously notes about American journalists that “The fact that they couldn’t pronounce your name was your name’s fault, not theirs.” There is also quite a funny perspective given of the thinness of Picasso’s political convictions: “he knew Picasso for a bastard and a coward. How easy it was to be a Communist when you weren’t living under Communism!” Dmitri eventually finds himself unstoppably drawn into a system whichapplauds him as an idol for their own purposes “He swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce” rather than an artist with an independent voice and spirit.

This novel made me question the degree to which my own creativity is guided under the society in which I live. Even if I don’t live within a country that seeks to directly shackle what’s created within its own dominant ideological beliefs, I’m guided and influenced by the media and popular beliefs of those around me. In this novel it’s observed how even good intentioned people are worn down by the fact of their survival because “conscience was always there to insist that more courage could have been shown.” Barnes explores the deep complexities and moral ambiguities involved in a lifetime under an oppressive regime. What survives through the gruelling circumstances under which it is created is the music: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” But the novel asks how this might become perverted when the mind of the artist has been poisoned by a lifetime of compromise. “The Noise of Time” is a short intense novel of breathtaking scope and wisdom.

Listen to a wonderful interview with Julian Barnes by Sinéad Gleeson on The Book Show where they discuss “The Noise of Time”, the author’s bookshelf and his development as a writer:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulian Barnes