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Books: A lesson in literary theory from the KGB

Fictions and Lies by Irina Ratushinskaya John Murray pounds 16.99
T he poet Irina Ratushinskaya was, in the last decade of Soviet communism, lionised in the West as previously only Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been. Jailed in 1983 because her verse was deemed "anti-Soviet", she was released into exile in London after an international campaign had put her plight on the Cold War map. Her account of her ordeal, Grey is the Colour of Hope, is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a classic of prison literature which effortlessly gets you inside the psyche of the totalitarian Soviet regime and its hapless and often well- meaning foot soldiers.

But like other writers who have become icons of a struggle for freedom - Alan Paton, Athol Fugard and Donald Woods in South Africa, or her compatriot Solzhenitsyn himself - Ratushinskaya found herself in a no-man's-land once the system that abused her was defeated. Overnight, her personal experience of persecution changed from being the potent indictment of a corrupt regime found in No, I'm Not Afraid and other collections of her poetry, into something with apparently only historical relevance. And on a personal level, with her young children firmly established in London, it was hard for her to return home even though she was now free to do so.

Her first attempt to square this circle came in 1997 with a lengthy and dense historical novel, The Odessans, which sold well in Moscow but sank without trace here. Some predicted that it would be the last we would hear of her in the West. Fictions and Lies confounds such pessimists. In it she continues to write about the past - shunning those much maligned parochial middle-class dramas allegedly so favoured by women novelists in her adopted country - but this time it is the recent past and the underground writers' network of the 1970s in the Soviet Union.

To be honest, I picked it up with a heavy heart, fearing that my one- time heroine Ratushinskaya was going to be reduced to raking over the coals one more time in a thinly disguised exercise in autobiography. The cover merely confirms the impression with the Kremlin and Soviet soldiers in gloomy silhouette. Yet within three pages I was gripped, for this is, quite unexpectedly, a taut psychological thriller whose historical setting only enhances the much broader questions it asks about individual freedom and having the courage to follow your conscience. Ideals and truth itself, whatever society and system we live under, are for Ratushinskaya potentially movable feasts, endlessly prey to the blandishments of money, sex and family obligations.

Anton Nikolin, a reclusive author of children's books whose life has been overshadowed by the death of his wife and daughter, inadvertently becomes the centre of an investigation organised by the KGB and carried out by agents working within the state-controlled Union of Writers. They believe that Nikolin possesses the only copy of a controversial secret manuscript by a dissident writer who was so harried by the authorities that he died of a heart attack. Nikolin, an attractively naive, trusting and unworldly man, knows nothing of the missing text, but is himself hard at work on his own anti-Soviet novel. His rudimentary security measures to protect this secret project are quickly breached once he falls within the orbit of a complex web of officials, false friends, flawed dissidents and prostitutes. He is uncovered and faces the choice between a psychiatric hospital or capitulation. As he struggles with his conscience, the novel reaches its climax.

Nikolin is not a saint, yet neither are any of the other characters in this compelling story unambiguously good or bad. They all occupy that grey moral world of which Ratushinskaya, on the basis both of her past writings and now of this exceptionally fine novel, can claim to be a peerless chronicler. Everyone reaches some sort of compromise with the system, either knowingly, like KGB officer Filipp Savich, whose duty does not stop him appreciating the exceptional literary merits of Nikolin's dissident novel, or by dint of refusing to ask the obvious questions. Nikolin's illustrator friend, Olga, makes a fine show in public and in private of never kowtowing to the authorities, yet owes her freedom, whether she acknowledges it or not, to her father, an official poet and KGB favourite.

The myriad of insights that Ratushinskaya offers into the human capacity for living with self-deception and double standards are so framed that they instantly have a life of their own outside the particular context of the plot. Backdrops are indistinct and geographical landmarks are kept to a minimum, while the incidental details of Russian life and period touches are avoided so that, while you are aware that this is the Soviet Union, it could equally well be anywhere in the world. With plotting as intricate and clever as any John Grisham blockbuster, the prose, as befits a poet of Ratushinskaya's stature, has a sparse, lyrical but formal beauty to it. This is a confident, challenging and triumphant return to centre stage by an exceptional writer.