It's Moscow, 1938, and we are coming up to the end of the Soviet football season. There is a week before the decisive match between Dynamo Moscow and Spartak Moscow. Dynamo was the team of the secret police, the NKVD. Both were founded by Felix Dzerzhinsky, and both were inherited by his cruel protégé, Lavrenti Beria.
Spartak was nominally the team of trade unions and workers co-operatives in the light industrial sector. But under the guidance of Nikolai Starostin, player coach and driving force, Spartak came to represent the people against the leviathan of the Soviet state. Starostin's refusal to accept that political hierarchies should determine the outcome of football matches cost him dearly. He spent 10 years in the Gulag before the intervention of Stalin's football-mad son got him released.
Tariq Goddard has taken this story, and plenty of liberties along the way, and fictionalised it. Starostin becomes Copic, Beria becomes Grotsky, and the boss, Stalin himself, makes a sinister cameo appearance on the phone. Goddard has thrown in lovelorn Polish strikers, refugee Catalan party careerists, and stirred it all with gargantuan doses of sex, drinking and cursing.
For me, it was a book of two halves. I read the first 100 pages in an unbroken and enjoyable passage of play. The set-up was intriguing, the pace ferocious, the cursing sounded authentic and the characters promising.
Then, at half time, I met a Russian. Dynamo was not her kind of book; indeed, for her it's all been downhill since Tolstoy. But Russia was her life and the life of her family, which for four generations had borne the scars, the brutality, the unspeakable cruelties of the Soviet experience. Her stories were not, I felt, particularly out of the ordinary.
In the second half, although the gags kept coming and the pace never dropped, I couldn't help but feel the game was up. The language of the book suddenly felt very British and contemporary. The depth of the characters thinned, their emotional lives contrived for comic effect. I just could not feel the cold, the humiliation, the fear and despair that an imagined Soviet Moscow must surely evoke.
So what went wrong? Was it merely my half-time reminder of the personal realities of life under Communism? I think there is something else going on; or rather, not going on in Dynamo. There is no politics. From the perspective of the early 21st century, it is hard to see the politics and ideology, still harder to take it seriously; as if anyone ever believed the era's Marxist-Leninist doublespeak. Yet they did, and without politics, the characters of this book and the dynamic of the Soviet system can only be accounted for in terms of the basest and cruellest of emotions let loose.
But you don't kill 20 million people just with base impulses. They help, but you need a state and an ideology - you need politics. That is a much harder comic prospect. In its absence, it is hard not to think that Dynamo's performance lacks the emotional heart and intellectual steel that the story demands.
A new edition of the reviewer's 'Football Yearbook' (Dorling Kindersley) is published next weekReuse content