This is the first novel from Barnes, since he won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense Of An Ending.
It is essentially a novelisation of the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, doomed to live and work under Stalin and his successors,first in fear for his life and then in guilty shame at the enforced compromises that have secured not just his survival, but his canonisation by a regime he despises. This brief, intimately drawn life focuses on three critical moments in his career. In the first, an opera of his is damned in a Pravda editorial, virtually a death threat in itself. Next, we see him on a post-war propaganda tour of the US, robotically delivering a ghosted speech in which he must denounce his own work and that of Stravinsky, whom he considers the greatest composer of the 20th century. In the third, the ageing Shostakovich is a puppet celebrity wheeled out to make speeches and denounce his heroes. So abject is his self-loathing that he lacks now even ‘the self-respect that suicide required’. In this final section, Barnes pulls together all the strands of a meticulously imagined portrait into a powerful study of the ‘complexities of life under tyranny’. It is masterfully done, but it is hard to share the optimism of his final scene, in which he seems to suggest that music – art – can somehow transcend fear and perhaps even Stalin. I wonder. £14.99. Dan Brotzel