THE CASE OF COMRADE TULAYEV BY VICTOR SERGE

If you’ve read any of my reviews you may have come across me rambling on about interconnectedness; in fact, i think I last wrote about it only a few days ago. I always, by way of justifying it perhaps, preface this rambling by admitting that interconnectedness is an obsession of mine; of course, it being a genuine obsession, it is very often on my mind and it does, therefore, colour the way that I see and approach the world, including the way that I read things. So, uh, although I fear I am in danger of being as much of a bore as Charlie Citrine [whose theosophy twaddle mars Humboldt’s Gift], I cannot promise that this is the last time I’m going to chat about this shit. Fair warning, and all that. In any case, what, for me, is interconnectedness? I believe [not uniquely] that everything, my entire experience of the world, my entire existence, is connected to the experience and existence of every person and thing on this planet, both in the present day and historically, in an infinite and complex number of ways.

While I said that I cannot promise that this is the last time I will write about interconnectedness, I can promise that it is especially relevant in terms of the book under review here, because Serge’s novel is not merely an example of interconnectedness [all things are examples of it, to my mind], but is, on one level, actually about it. The Case of Comrade Tulayev starts from the arbitrary point at which the man of the title is shot and killed. This event, with a grand flap of butterfly wings, sets in motion a seemingly unending, subsequent, series of events, spreading out in numerous directions like an insane spider-diagram. Each chapter of the novel deals with a different consequence of that initial act; Tulayev’s murder begats Erchov’s dismissal, it begats Rublev’s arrest, and so on. These people, none of whom were involved in the man’s death, are all drawn into the cyclone created by it.

Of course, in terms of plot, this is actually a novel about the Stalinist purges. The Party, desirous of being seen to be strong and impervious to random acts of terrorism, need to pin the crime on someone, need to give the impression of being in control of the situation, and so have no qualms about punishing innocent men. There is a temptation to say that The Party reacts with paranoia, but this is not so; far from exhibiting psychological distress, it cynically goes about its business, offering sacrificial lambs to the great God of Communism.

Aside from the sophisticated construction, and the engaging exploration of political ideology, the novel interested me in one or two other ways. Firstly, there is an extraordinary amount of detail here, bureaucratic detail, and it has a disorientating, mind-spinning, effect on the reader. While this isn’t so interesting in-and-of-itself, it is when one considers that many of the characters themselves feel burdened or confused by all the dossiers, meaningless memorandum, and organisations. One is put, as a reader, in the same position as the people in the novel and I found that especially impressive. The second point of interest, for me, is in the way that Serge managed to create a novel that runs to only 400 pages and yet feels like a grand epic. At every point, in almost every sentence, there is a hint of something, some tossed off anecdote, some potential back-story, that other novelists would have spent at least 50 pages detailing. This makes the novel incredibly rich.

While all this may seem insufferably dry there are, trust me, also moments of great beauty in the text. One scene in particular will always stay with me: Erchov and his wife hunting ibex, and the similarly-hunted Erchov whispers in his wife’s ear as she lines up her shot “above all, darling, miss him.” Don’t miss this brilliant book though.

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