[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end]
11 March 2016
…which cover about the first third of the book. It took a while for me to start to be convinced by what Helen Dunmore is doing – I come to it with certain misgivings, and I’ll come back to those – but then I got to Chapter 7. This is where Andrei has to tell both the Communist Party big shot and his son the truth about the tumour in the boy’s leg, and both conversations are brilliantly done. For a while, the terrifying nature of Andrei’s situation is not to the fore. Instead, we get a paediatrician at the top of his game in his relations with his patients and their parents, and their reactions. Volkov, the Party apparatchik, is used to things going his way – and it’s clear that his expectations of his son are typical of a Soviet version of an alpha male. The tact that Andrei needs in order to let them both know how things stand is colossal. Luckily – and this is one of my misgivings – in this respect, Andrei is a colossus. As she did in The Siege, in this novel Dunmore only presents characters who are very special indeed.
What do I mean? In The Siege we get a top writer, Anna’s father, in fear of his life for being far more principled in his political stance than all the others. And his former lover Marina, a top actress now living the life of a hermit for the same reason. And Anna, able to think of absolutely everybody in her care before taking a moment to meet her own needs. (She’s also a superb, if totally undervalued, nursery nurse, and would have been an artist by now if her mother, a top doctor, hadn’t died in childbirth.) And Andrei, brave and loving, the uber-competent doctor who puts his patients’ lives before his own…. It’s the same in The Betrayal. Anna and Andrei are still pure gold, Kolya, her younger brother is an awkward adolescent – but with the added tweak that he is almost good enough to have become a concert pianist if things had been slightly different. He’s only performing averagely at school, but we know that men like Einstein and Churchill had poor school reports. (Sigh.)
And there’s another thing. Even while being impressed by Dunmore’s verbatim presentation of Andrei’s almost impossibly difficult conversations, my other misgiving about the characters she portrays kept nagging away. In The Siege – and I’ll stop talking about it soon – Anna and Andrei struck me as middle class Home Counties, transposed to Leningrad as the Siege catches up with them. And they seemed like time-travellers, being so imbued with a recognisable 21st Century sensibility that I found it difficult to believe in them. In The Betrayal – the same. Whilst Dunmore does a better job in this novel at showing what it must have felt like to live in a terrorist regime, she doesn’t make her characters seem of that time. They are good at the necessary double-think, and automatically use hushed voices to discuss difficult things even when nobody could possibly hear them, but… but what? It’s as though, really, they are used to better things, as though they are outsiders parachuted in. In 1952, when this novel is set, as Andrei speaks first to the father and then the son, there is nothing that the subsequent 60 years of patient relations could teach him. He would receive top ratings if he spoke like that in a hospital in the west in 2016.
Ok, fine. But there’s plenty to be impressed by, yes? Definitely. Andrei’s colleague in the first chapter, sweating despite the freshness of the June day, goes about offloading the case on to Andrei. It becomes clear why he is sweating. The case relates to the son of this man Volkov, and instantly we know that this is bad news. Andrei knows what his colleague is doing – if you have nothing to do with a case, you can’t be blamed for anything bad that happens – and at first he doesn’t play ball. But then he does, and because he’s so good with the boy – I’m not making this up – Volkov insists that he heads the case even though it’s other doctors who have the right expertise. Along the way, Dunmore lets us know that Volkov achieved his quick rise through the Party hierarchy to his purge of Jewish influences. (Boo, hiss – even his name derives from the Russian for wolf.) The most competent doctor is both Jewish and a woman, neither of which push the right buttons for such a bigot – although she is the one who performs the actual operation in Chapter 8. The boy has a cancerous tumour in his knee, and the only thing that might save him is the textbook amputation she performs. Only a superb diplomatist could have brought all this about, so it’s lucky for the boy that Andrei was around.
Meanwhile there’s Anna’s life. She still works in pre-school education, is still underqualified – and she’s under pressure to better herself from her highly competent boss who seems to have swallowed the Party’s triumphalist pseudo-Socialist line wholesale. What the (female) boss doesn’t know is that Anna is hiding her past from the authorities. A ‘pedagogical’ degree – that’s what the boss would really like her to do – would remind the Bureaucracy that she is the daughter of Mikhail Levin, the writer they had in their sights before the Siege of Leningrad gave them something else to think about. So she meets and goes beyond the analysis targets her boss sets her, and she’s supposed to be considering a statistics course now… but none of it is truly fulfilling. And, to top it all, she and Andrei don’t seem to be able to have children. Something like ten years of trying – and they really do try, despite the wakeful Kolya’s presence in the other room – have led to nothing. She blames herself.
She doesn’t have as much to do as Andrei and that’s part of her problem. The art degree she wasn’t able to do before the war is just a memory now. The same goes for her father’s unpublished work, and the diaries she pretends are lost. Dunmore has decided to turn both of these into a silent symbol of her defiance. She’s definitely her father’s daughter in this, having meticulously created a safe hiding place in the piano stool. In it are those secret war diaries that were her first introduction to Andrei in The Siege when he brought them to her – and her own drawings, mostly from memory, of scenes from the Siege. At first it seemed that after the war the blokadniks were to be celebrated, and the dead commemorated. It didn’t happen. Why should one provincial city be singled out for special treatment? She’s glad she didn’t give the drawings to the authorities, who would probably have destroyed them. The contents of the stool don’t constitute a shrine, but they nearly do.
So what does Anna do? When she isn’t working she cooks, or worries about Kolya and the ‘Weasel’, a neighbour who has just got up a petition to complain about his piano-playing. (Interesting how the unlikeable, threatening men get animal nicknames – Volkov has been referred to as ‘the Wolf.) Will they be able to keep their two-room apartment, regarded with envy by people who know about it? Why doesn’t she just get on with making her dress for the Doctors’ ball, out of the material bequeathed to her by Marina, that actress lover of her father’s? It’s assuming a symbolic stature of its own, another memorial. She has borrowed a sewing machine from a childhood friend she’s accidentally met again recently after losing contact before the war. She’s the wife of a successful film-maker, which means he must be good at toeing the Party line. In the one proper conversation they’ve had, the woman seems friendly but evasive, as if there are plenty of things she simply doesn’t like to think about.
And I’m wondering what the ‘betrayal’ will be, exactly. It seemed at first that it was the handing-over of responsibility for the difficult case to Andrei. But things have moved on from then, and there are a hundred different ways that people can betray one another in this world. Anna intends to fight the ‘Weasel’s’ petition, and has already used Party-type language to frighten him a little. ‘I came down to his level,’ she tells Andrei – it seems that she has no other choice. But it might be a dangerous path for her to have set out on.
The crisis comes at almost the precise half-way point, with another of Dunmore’s stand-out encounters between Andrei and Volkov. Finally, it is confirmed for Andrei – and the reader – that he was absolutely right in Chapter 1 to be terrified of what might come of any involvement with Volkov’s son. Deep behind Volkov’s eyes, very occasionally, Andrei can detect the terror of the father who knows his son is going to die. (Metastasis has set in, as both Andrei and the woman surgeon knew it well might, and the cancer has spread to the boy’s lungs.) But Dunmore needs Volkov to be the villain – I can’t imagine any great redemption for him in the part of the novel I haven’t read yet – so we get the theatrical table-thumping, the screams of rage against the ‘saboteurs’ at work, even the melodrama of a hospital lamp thrown across the room. Andrei does his best to remain impassive – he’s good at this, as he is at everything else in his life except dancing – but it does no good. Volkov is a personification of the Soviet state apparatus, and he is here for the reader to hiss at. You can imagine the lip-curling delight he takes in describing the incompetence of the Jewish surgeon who is as much to blame as Andrei himself.
A chapter or two later, after Andrei has been left to stew in the apartment for nearly a week following the telephone call informing him of his suspension from his duties, we get the set-piece scene of the arrest before dawn. There are few surprises here – it’s one of the aspects of life under Stalin that everybody knows about – but Dunmore does a convincing job of taking us through the arbitrary nastiness of the officers and the terror our hapless heroes. There’s even the symbolic destruction of the jars of jam and honey that Anna has stored up for the winter, as though even the lowliest servants of the regime don’t recognise forward planning when they see it. At first, I was surprised that the arrest should come so soon. What on earth is Dunmore going to do with the remaining 100-odd pages – and how on earth can she save Andrei? We know from The Siege that she is not the kind of author who will kill off a golden boy like Andrei, especially after she has spent whole paragraphs having Anna listing the heroic medical feats he achieved during the siege.
Then I started to do the sums. Dunmore has already mentioned that the downtrodden population often wonder why Stalin doesn’t just die and give them all a break. And then I realised: this is the winter of 1952-3, the one that Stalin didn’t live through. Andrei – and I’m only guessing, of course – is going to survive by outliving the regime. Better still, maybe he’ll even live to see Volkov himself denounced as a terrorist collaborator. Maybe.
But I should tell you the rest of what happens in these chapters. There’s a lot of worrying, and a lot of quiet sympathy from the handful of people who understand. Brodskaya, the surgeon, has had herself transferred to a backwater as soon as the operation is over, but it clearly isn’t going to do her any good. Meanwhile – boo, hiss – the doctor who toes the Party line, the one who washed his hands of the Volkov case in Chapter 1, has got a promotion to a Moscow hospital. Anna’s nursery school continues to be a microcosm of pointless Stalinist planning and target-setting – there’s so much talk of box-ticking that I decided that Dunmore must know some real teachers in 21st Century Britain – and she does her best to remain inconspicuous. She knows she can’t succeed, of course. There’s a moment much earlier in the novel when she remembers having come to the conclusion long ago that you don’t make yourself disappear, you just make yourself small.
And there’s plenty of plot. That doctors’ ball takes place, and Anna wears the green dress, which itself becomes a symbol of something or other. It seems to represent a time when things were more free and… whilst wearing it, she and Andrei have such a fine, mutually supportive time that when they make love later she is convinced she has conceived. Yeh, sure. Except she has, as we discover in the next chapter. Four months have passed – long enough for the boy’s cancer to spread, and for Anna to start becoming confident that she won’t miscarry. Who would have thought it?
This is when we get the catastrophic news of the deterioration in the Volkov boy’s health, and from there… what? A leads to B leads to C leads to D, as Dunmore takes us through a process that can’t help but seem a little predictable. Meanwhile she has to have the ever-vigilant, ever-thoughtful Anna and Andrei planning the best possible outcomes for themselves, for each other, and for Kolya. Luckily (sigh) there’s somewhere for Kolya to go. An old doctor friend – I’m not making this up, but Dunmore is – has decided to spend the winter at her dacha, and Kolya can go there on the pretext that he needs fresh air for his health.
While she is delivering him there, Anna can do some more burying, this time of the materials she had been keeping in the piano-stool. She’s still keeps this secret, even from Andrei, and Dunmore is so fond of symbolic meanings that I’m wondering what it that she’s doing here. Ostensibly it’s for Andrei and Kolya’s protection – if they know nothing of the diaries and drawings, they can’t be harmed – but secrecy in this world is a dangerous, soul-destroying thing. Maybe at the end of the novel, after Andrei is released from the gulag or wherever, Anna will be able to dig up the materials and show them to the world. And Dunmore is setting up another symbolic act of cleansing. Anna was going to hide the papers under some sacking in the dacha shed, but disturbed – wait for it – a nest of rats. She leaves them there – what can she do, as the sky at that very moment promises the first snow of the winter? – but we know that’s she’ll be back. She might not be with Andrei when she does it – I’m not 100% sure he will survive – but she’ll be with Kolya and, of course, the new baby.
Maybe it’s time to stop guessing and read on.
Chapters 18-27 – to the end
So, how predictable is it? I was wrong about the symbolic ending I thought Dunmore would go for. We never get the acts of cleansing and release I’d imagined, the culling of the rats and the disinterment of the writings by Anna’s father. Instead, we get a set of epiphanies, to do with birth and creativity. By the end, Anna and Kolya have both left stony Leningrad behind, possibly for good, and the baby is born in their good friend’s dacha. (The friend is a doctor, remember, so there aren’t going to be any plot complications there. Dunmore isn’t going to let Anna die like her mother before The Siege even opens. Non-existent or minor characters are much easier to kill, preferably offstage, as with Brodskaya the surgeon. So it goes.) And not only that: Kolya discovers a talent for musical composition, then Anna rediscovers her own muse as she starts to do daily drawings. Her first efforts are little details of the dacha, but soon she moves on. Almost without thinking about it, she sketches – guess – the feet and toes of her tiny little girl. It’s a new beginning for everyone. And it’s spring. Which means that, right on schedule, Stalin’s death is announced on the radio. It doesn’t come on the same day as the child is born, but they’re pretty close.
I guessed more or less everything else right. It isn’t difficult with this author, as one thing leads inevitably to the next. Andrei survives, although this isn’t confirmed until the one-page appendix that is Chapter 27. He isn’t in the first round of prisoner releases after Stalin’s death, but he definitely doesn’t serve out his ten-year sentence. Volkov doesn’t survive but, for some reason, Dunmore doesn’t show him being publicly denounced. Dunmore takes us through the last minutes of his life as he prepares to shoot himself, still in his dress uniform, but this happens before his fall from grace can be announced. (The only hint of his fall is the insignificance of the death-notice in the single copy of Pravda that Anna happens to see that spring. No obituary, no triumphant listing of his achievements, just a short statement of his death from a heart attack.) Basically – although Dunmore only offers the merest hint of it – Anna and the rest will be able to re-start their lives sometime in the mid-fifties like the highly principled, upstanding citizens they have always been. There can’t ever be another sequel, surely. How dull would that be?
Why am I being sarcastic? Dunmore is a really, really good writer dealing with some terrible things, but… but what? She always pulls back from the brink of real horror. In the last of the set-piece conversations between Andrei and Volkov, far and away the high points of this novel, Andrei is so sure that he isn’t going to get out alive that his body gives up for a while and he collapses into unconsciousness. But minutes later, Volkov gets an important telephone call that turns out to be life-changing for both of them. When he reappears, hours later, he is drunk and bitter…. Andrei, slower than the reader by this point (after all, he’s been exhausted by weeks in the Lubyanka), doesn’t guess what man could be powerful enough to force Volkov to dance to his tune all night, literally. And then he does. Ah. Volkov thinks back to when his son liked this man sitting before him, and allows him to sign a confession in which he has not needed to tell any lies. No denouncements of others, no confessions of sabotage, merely the blandest ‘lack of vigilance’ that we already know is the state’s catch-all formula for those who haven’t really done anything wrong. It won’t get him a release but, well, we know he’ll be ok.
It’s disappointing, one of several get-out-of-jail cards Dunmore offers her characters in the last quarter of the novel. When Anna is desperately trying to find someone, anyone, who might help her she draws a blank at first. She visits Andrei’s trusted professor, but he is merely annoyed and his wife is venomous. She daren’t go to the hospital, daren’t mention a thing at work, and things are looking bad. And then they aren’t. Julia, the friend with the Stalin Prize-winning husband, isn’t like the others. She takes Anna (and the reader) through an account of the kind of state terrorism that was happening before the war, how she was arrested but given only a ‘lack of due vigilance’ rap on the knuckles and a relatively light sentence. Then came the miracle – I think she calls it that – of marriage to a man who manages to win a Stalin Prize without sacrificing his principles. Hah. And over the next few weeks Julia takes Anna through all the necessary steps. Luckily (sigh) the rent on the flat is paid until the end of the month, so Julia has time to supervise the sale of everything while Anna lies low in the dacha. Later, a package of money arrives that is clearly more than the worth of anything in the flat. Good old Julia. And good old Helen Dunmore, not making things too hard for either Anna or the reader.
Does she do the same for Andrei? She takes us through his time in the cells, first in Leningrad and then in the Lubyanka in Moscow. It’s horrible but, on the scale of these things – there isn’t much that a 21st Century reader hasn’t been confronted with in accounts of torture around the world – it’s pretty tame stuff. At one point he’s even given dark hints by another prisoner of how lucky he is to have received nothing like the worst treatment. You wouldn’t believe it… but Dunmore draws a veil over it. He gets the good cop/ bad cop/ worse cop treatment, has to stand awake for hour after hour while people yell at him and slap him about, and so on. Then this stops, and he just has the dull daily routine of sitting in solitary with nothing to do but visualise his medical textbooks and his childhood home. After not very long of this comes the interview with Volkov.
So. So Dunmore lets her main characters survive, as we knew she would, and… what? That’s it. What a horrible time it was, wasn’t it? Well, yes. But so? Two fine people are put through the mill, their experiences are described, and they come out at the other end. Along the way, other fine people do what they can to help, while less fine people don’t. One fine person, sadly, is executed for no reason, but we don’t know her well so that’s not so bad.
I’m not surprised that this novel reached the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. But I would have been surprised if it had gone any further. It feels like an opportunity missed.