BOOK REVIEW / Peeled eggs and a mania for the telephone: 'Fear' - Anatoli Rybakov Tr. Antonina W Bouis: Hutchinson, 15.99 pounds

ANATOLI RYBAKOV'S epic saga unfolds in the recriminatory atmosphere of Stalin's purges, where the lives of millions of Soviet citizens were 'broken like eggs' for the dictator's cannibal feast. In Fear, the sequel to his earlier novel, Children of the Arbat (written in 1966 but not published until 1987), Rybakov takes up the story of Sasha Pankratov, a young engineering student, who has been exiled to Siberia on trumped up charges of counter-revolutionary activity.

Rybakov also brings prominent historical figures directly on to his stage. Among them are Kamenev and Zinoviev, both executed after a show trial in 1936, and Marshal Tukhachevsky, who was eliminated together with most of the higher echelon of the Red Army and the members of Lenin's original Politburo. But one of Rybakov's most memorable portraits is that of the dictator himself: Comrade Stalin.

The son of a cobbler, with a pock-marked face and a pronounced Georgian accent, Stalin is depicted by Rybakov as an astute manipulator of language. As a youth he was an aspiring poet and a candidate for the priesthood. Stalin's shrewd grasp of linguistic nuances undermines the literary aspirations of the novel's central protagonist: a young man steeped in the Russian classics, who can recite 'pages of Pushkin by heart'. In contrast, Stalin plays with the conventional forms of speech. Perhaps this explains his mania for the telephone; a passion that prompted Bukharin's description of Stalin as 'Genghis Khan with a telephone'.

Not surprisingly, in a society of self-protecting informers, lives hang in the balance of words. 'You could suffer for a single careless word,' someone remarks in Fear, 'you could ruin your life.' Sasha is first arrested for an impolitic remark in a school newspaper and allusions to literary works, newspapers, letters and telephone calls recur throughout the book. The novel opens with discussions of newspaper articles and the receipt of a letter, and closes with Sasha sending a telegram.

Rybakov is at his best in Fear when he portrays the mental duel between interrogator and victim and the surreptitious twisting of arbitrary statements into proof of murderous conspiracies. Stalin and his KGB torturers spin out their fabrications with the ease and inventiveness of novelists. Against that, Rybakov stresses the mutedness of the novel's lovers. Sasha's reciprocated love for the beautiful and rebellious Varya is expressed in cryptic notes and covert telephone conversations which the lovers themselves struggle, unsuccessfully, to decode.

'If you live with wolves,' one character observes in Fear, 'you have to howl like wolves' and Rybakov - who experienced exile into Siberia at first hand - successfully evokes the bleak atmosphere of suspicion and the threat of war which was used to justify the most ferocious crimes. Yet the novel's ambitious historical sweep tends to disrupt the plot and diminish the relevance of the local experience. The novel sometimes reads like a historical text book of the Stalinist terror: 'According to scholars, in early 1937 there were five million people in prisons and camps. Between January 1937 and December 1938, another seven million were arrested.'

In part, the shortcomings of Fear are inevitable in the dramatisation of a society where human beings have been reduced to ciphers and where the routine lives of ordinary citizens are severed. After all, disruption and anonymity are Rybakov's themes. Nevertheless, the howling of the wolves is no longer terrifying if the voices of the victims become inaudible. For the reader even the description of a meal of vodka, thick sliced bread, boiled sausage and peeled eggs (significantly spread out on a newspaper) comes as a rare and appreciated banquet of detail.

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