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
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there