Harvill Secker, £12.99, 306pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Engineers of the Soul, By Frank Westerman, trans. Sam Garrett

Socialist Realism, the approach prescribed for writers and artists in Stalin's Soviet Union, has long been described, usually with a sneer, as neither "socialist" nor "realist". Western critics then pass on to what they judge to be "real" art – the work of internal dissenters, published in samizdat or smuggled abroad (Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky), or of Russian writers from the post-1917 emigration (Bunin). In his acknowledgements, Frank Westerman, the Dutch writer and journalist, makes the point. "In Western reference works," he complains, "the only literature of lasting value from the USSR is that which was clandestine, banned, confiscated, hand-copied, smuggled to the West or never published at all."

In Engineers of the Soul, Westerman sets out not exactly to correct this common judgement, rather to look at how the many writers who tried to meet the shifting requirements of Socialist Realism worked. He takes their output on its merits - some of which, he argues, are, despite everything, artistic. This is no apologia, however. It is a personal quest that doubles as an idiosyncratic history of writers wrestling with official demands that shift mysteriously and without warning.

The uniting theme is Westerman's chequered attempt to follow in the footsteps of Konstantin Paustovsky to Kara Bogaz, to the east of the Caspian Sea (the title of Paustovsky's "narrative" published in 1932). But there is another theme, less obvious yet equally telling: the striving of Soviet writers to identify and occupy the contracting space between their artistic inclinations and the diktats from on high.

Time and again, Westerman returns to this. Did Paustovsky "have qualms to overcome before bending his talents to the service of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat? Or had he sincerely come to believe in the prospect of a better future?" Kara Bogaz he calls "a tour de force of adaptability".

Three other elements make this a unique, and in many ways a uniquely felicitous, work. The first is Westerman's sometimes elliptical, sometimes epigrammatic, style. There is a particular quality to his observation, spare and authoritative. He writes as an outsider who does not pretend to know the inner workings of other people's minds.

The second is the timing. By chance or design, Westerman benefits from a double layer of hindsight. He is writing – it is tempting to say "composing" - this book not just half a century after Stalin's death, but more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet edifice. In his travels to epic sites of the Soviet industrial experiment – the Belamor canal in Russia's far north and the salt works of Turkmenistan – he sees and hears of multiple legacies, most malign. These are lands subject to all the vagaries of Stalinisation, de-Stalinised, then de-Sovietised; they are now languishing, in desultory search of a future.

The third is Westerman's own background as an engineering graduate who specialised in irrigation. It is not necessary to know how or why an aspiring hydrologist mutated into a newspaper correspondent and author to appreciate that his training gives him an unusually qualified take on the great transformative projects dreamt up by Stalin and his ministers to force the Soviet Union into the modern age. He has a good idea of what is feasible or not; he understands, as most of the ill-fated participants in those projects did not, the chasm that lay between ideal and reality.

This is a book that grows on you. It becomes absorbing, but ellipsis can be taken too far. The early chapters assume an acquaintance with Soviet writing; and I was not always convinced by the translation.

In sum, though, Westerman completes a portrait at once engaging and devastating. As such, it comes closer than any conventional literary history to defining the elusive Socialist Realism. His laconic treatment of Maxim Gorky's death sums it up. The powers-that-be have produced special issues of Pravda, to save this literary patriarch the agony of reading about his own decline. He dies with the latest copy in his hand: "a lie packaged as the truth."

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders