Red Plenty, By Francis Spufford

Reviewed,Mary Dejevsky
Friday 27 August 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


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.

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