Thursday, May 21, 2015

Stalin and the Cinematographer

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A NovelThe Commissariat of Enlightenment: 
A Novel 
by Ken Kalfus

"Gribshin considered what he had just seen.  He knew it was important.  It belonged to the future, he was sure, but was it his future.  He too was pleased by the sound the lock made as it closed:  it was something predictive.  In the echoing tintinnabulation of the lock's components colliding hard against each other were conjured the sonances of rifle shots and beyond them smoky images of milling crowds.  The sounds and images vanished without revealing to Gribshin exactly what they promised." (p 10)

Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. The author of this novel, Ken Kalfus, links this death with that of Lenin - by imagining that three men attended both: an embalmer, a filmmaker and Stalin. The film maker's  knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from post revolution chaos toward the bureaucratic nightmare of the Soviet state.

Stalin promises that "the camera does not lie", but in a beautifully constructed scene, Kalfus demonstrates the opposite. Tolstoy has refused to see his wife. Gribshin knows that the public will demand a deathbed reconciliation between the great artist and the woman who bore his 13 children. So he films the countess entering the house where her husband is dying. There's a blackout. Then she leaves, her face contorted with sorrow. European, cinema audiences will be sophisticated enough to understand the blackout's implication: she has said her final farewell. In fact, she entered the house, turned on her heel and walked out again. Celebrity, propaganda, the mass media - it's all here in 1910.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment is one of the most powerful as the agency responsible for propaganda. The cinematographer's fate merges with that of Comrade Astapov, director of a massive Red agitprop campaign. People who choose to resist the commissariat include a church congregation that refuses to give up its faith, an experimental theater director, and a resilient young woman who makes an abstract, pornographic film in the name of sexual education for women. Kalfus recreates unforgettably the embalmer and scientist Vladimir Vorobev (who mummified Lenin), Joseph Stalin and Countess Tolstoy  who anchor the plethora of plot developments. 
This was a delightful surprise to read.  From the opening scenes at Leo Tolstoy's deathbed (and the surrounding media circus) to the rise of Stalin, Kalfus's blends carefully researched history, subtle social commentary and imaginative storytelling.  While the book required patience to read, it paid for that patience with a fascinating historical narrative of early twentieth-century Russia.

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Brian Joseph said...

One thing that strikes me about the plot details that you describe is that based upon what I know happened in the early days of Communist Russia, the incidents that you describe seem plausible. Particularly the faked footage involving Tolstoy's wife and the pornographic film.

Great review as always James.

James said...


Thanks for your observations. Apparently there was quite a commotion at the time of Tolstoy's death and this novel takes that moment as a jumping off point.
The best thing about this book is the author's heavenly prose style.

Parrish Lantern said...

remember reading Thirst, a few years ago & thoroughly enjoyed it , also recall David Foster Wallace having high praise for this writer making this something I'd like to search out.