‘The Noise of Time’ – book review

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes
Vintage, 2017
Originally published 2016
192pp

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Image from Penguin

The Noise of Time is a fictional recounting of the experiences of real-life Soviet composer, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, during (primarily) the reign of Josef Stalin. The composer’s falling in and out of favour with the Soviet state serves as a symbol the of corrupting influence of state power on the arts.

We first meet Shostakovich waiting by a lift, expecting to be taken away by the authorities. Whilst waiting, he looks back on his life and what led him to this point. The novel is divided into three parts; and, for me, the second part is where things become more interesting. With the protagonist fully fleshed out, Barnes places him within the terrifying, all-encompassing mechanics of totalitarian society. And it is through watching the societal cogs whirr that we come to understand precisely how the ruling regime shapes the individual cognition of its citizens, and thereby the citizenry’s creative, artistic output.

So significant is its influence, echoes with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are – though perhaps inevitable, nonetheless – discernible.

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

wrote Orwell.

Peace had returned, and so the world was upside down again;
Terror had returned, and insanity with it.

writes Barnes.

In place of Big Brother is “Power” – or, more specifically at times, Stalin; Great Leader. Indeed, given the setting of Stalinist Russia, language is not merely euphemistic; there are blunt, graphic references to repression. However, “When truth-speaking became in possible – because it led to immediate death it had to be disguised.” Thus, a conversation in which Shostakovich questions Power as to whether mass murder and gulags were “absolutely necessary” – this is a hypothetical conversation existing only in Shostakovich’s mind. The euphemisms are familiar: if Shostakovich is too ill to attend an overseas event, doctors will be sent to “cure” him. Meanwhile – like Winston Smith, Bernard Marx and Guy Montag – literature-ly before him, Shostakovich knows that Power’s “daily insistence” that all the terror and murder is “for the best of all possible worlds” is “insane”.

The Noise of Time makes for thought-provoking reading, and offers philosophically-curious exploration into its themes of totalitarianism and the arts. My main gripe with the book, however, is its length. Indeed – despite opening at an interesting place – it is slow to start; and at 180 pages, Barnes, in my opinion, becomes repetitive. Perhaps this is to drive home the point about the terrifying omnipresent nature of the Soviet state(?) However, the narrative would be better served as a novella; I would cautiously suggest that it could be reduced to 100 pages and just as convincingly make its point. Nonetheless, The Noise of Time is unfortunately-pertinent reading for 2017, and with “classic” dystopian works under one’s belt, a reader could do worse that this fictional recounting of life under Stalin.

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