‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time’.
As anyone who knows me will know, I have an extreme dislike of any spoilers. I never read any surrounding material of any pop culture. Though I don’t judge a book by its cover, I will rarely read a blurb, as too often it gives too much away. Instead I choose to read the first couple of pages of a book to get a feel for it. This is what I did with Julian Barnes’ latest release, The Noise of Time. This, coupled with the fact that I have fond memories of reading The History of the world in 10 ½ chapters as part of my undergraduate degree, was enough for me to obsess over this book and lovingly stroke the cover whenever I saw it in Waterstones.
Diving into the book, there was a moment shockingly late in the book that I realised that my lack of knowledge about the surrounding intertexts to this work let me down. Embarrassingly it was at the end of the novel that it fully clicked that this novel was based on the true events of Dimitri Shostakovich, a real life composer and not a invention of Barnes’ mind as I had previously thought. Needless to say, I now feel that my knowledge of pre-WW2 Russian Opera composers needs a little work.
The novel itself was intrinsically moving and extremely appropriate for 2017 despite the eras it is set in: 1936, 1948 and 1960. We join Shostakovich as he has a number of conversations with ‘Power’ – the KGB – and how his work is banned and reinstated, as well as the KGB’s puppetry of him over the years. With Russia constantly a fixture in the news today, alongside the almost dystopian present we find ourselves in, this novel was timely and somewhat bleak in how society operates today.
“Not long after his return to Moscow, an article appeared under his name in the magazine New World. Interested to find out what he was supposed to think, he read…”
For much of the book Shostakovich is positioned by the KGB as a parrot of their views, who has a number of different articles written under his name, championing the ideas of those in charge. Given the idea of the ‘freedom of the press’, it casts a shadow of doubt of what place both truth and opinion have in contemporary society today, especially given the proclivity of a certain someone and ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.
The life and times of Shostakovich is presented primarily in vignettes, which are almost filmic in their descriptions. Characters fade in and out, accompanied by the soundtrack, Shostakovich’s own operas as they are written, banned and praised as the years go on.
The novel portrays the bleak struggle against oppression of the arts alongside the reign of totalitarianism, something that continues in a small way to this day. Barnes’ writes, ‘who did not grasp the one simple fact about the Soviet Union: that it was impossible to tell the truth here and live’. We live in an era where the news cycle is so vast that, in the words of The X-Files, The Truth Is Out There. But so are lies, slander and the world of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. We are certainly lucky enough to be able to tell our truth and live, but that is precisely the point – truth has become so nebulous and distorted idea in our ‘post truth’ society. How long until we too have to read what we think in the news, or are people already doing just that?