Faber & Faber, £16.99, 434pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Red Plenty, By Francis Spufford

In the matter of written and broadcast genres, I am conservative. I am uneasy when the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, and detest "faction" in pretty much any form. Maybe I should simply accept that we live in rule-breaking times, but I feel the need to know what is documented and what originates in the imagination of the writer or producer. That seems a pretty basic distinction.

From this - admittedly personal and prejudiced - perspective, Red Plenty is a disconcerting book. Quite deliberately, Francis Spufford chooses to cross recent history and fiction to make his points. He sets out to chart the former Soviet Union's economic aspirations and achievements through the 1950s and into the 1960s, essentially the post-Stalin period. And this is what he has done, in a highly original, stylish, but - and I return to this - also questionable manner. With the primary sources for the period defective (although less defective than they once were), Spufford fills them out with adaptations and inventions of his own.

The years 1953-68, which included the Khrushchev Thaw, the Cuban missile crisis and some of the fiercest examples of Soviet-US and communist-capitalist rivalry, were years of ideological ferment in the Soviet Union. Science, maths and economics were in the forefront, as the space for thinking was tantalisingly opened in limited ways, then closed.

Entering the looking-glass universe of Soviet economics, Spufford invokes the world of fantasy to help. All the chapters are prefaced by quotations from Aleksandr Afanasyev's Russian Fairy Tales, underlining a gap that can be bridged only by the suspension of reality. Spufford's narrative can be read as a sort of reverse magic realism.

Given the absurdities inherent in so much of Soviet life, this is an effective and convincing way to proceed. Take the entirely theoretical efforts to satisfy market demand for potatoes, which have no prospect of increasing the supply but satisfy the economists and the planners. Or the 1962 decision to increase the price of meat, which precipitated the notoriously hushed-up riots in Novocherkassk – even though the price rise had few implications for ordinary people, as meat at state prices was already largely a fictitious commodity. Or the apparently logical, but actually surreal, dialogue between a state planning official and a leading economic reformer (fictitious characters, both) about what is and is not permissible in pricing after Brezhnev and Kosygin take over from Khrushchev: the adoption of the husk of reform without its kernel.

Spufford's book is permeated with the impossibility of reconciling Soviet theory and reality: the words that mean their polar opposite; the silent consensus that accepts pretence; the compromises forced on individuals. This starts with the title, which seems intended as an oxymoron – but ever so slightly forced. While much of the writing is elegant and precise, with delightful and original turns of phrase, there are times when it is just a tad too clever by half, when a combination of showiness and technicality give it a clubbily masculine feel.

Style judgements are highly subjective, but the mixture of the historical and fictitious became irritating. To give Spufford his due, his 50 pages of painstaking notes clarify what is documented fact and what fiction. But the coexistence of the two, the invention of episodes and meetings, the transfer of historical events from one place and time to another, poses a fundamental question about what this book intends to be: history or fiction? This is a question of principle, but also of practice, because for me the fiction - the scenes from the Siberian scientific hothouse, Akademgorodok, for instance – often read more fluently and persuasively than the history.

The justification for such an approach, of course, is the same as for every artist: the pursuit of a higher truth. The argument is that, even if something did not actually happen, it could and perhaps should have done. The artist may not be faithful to reality as such, but offers something better – a distillation of reality, a super-authenticity. Maybe, but – prosaically perhaps - I would still rather like to know what is what. In ditching convention, Spufford has conducted an experiment as bold in its smaller way as post-Stalin economics. But the result, while far from the failure the Soviet economy became, does not quite equate to success.

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit