Novel of the week

Fictions and Lies

Irina Ratushinskaya, translated by Alyona Kozevnikova <em>John Murray, 288pp, £1

Irina Ratushinskaya never had much time for officialdom, and it had little time for her. When the KGB hauled her down as a 28-year-old poet for interrogation in the early 1980s, on the charge of writing and disseminating anti-Soviet material, she held a stubborn silence. And when, after four years' subsequent imprisonment in a strict-regime labour camp, she went to England in 1986 to recuperate, she was told she could stay there - a dissident-in-exile in Gorbachev's era of glasnost. The decree authorising her return was signed by Yeltsin only last year. So it comes as a surprise to discover that Fictions and Lies, written while Ratushinskaya was still based in London, deals precisely with the issue of co-operation with the KGB that the author took every measure to avoid and with the Stalinist milieu of the Union of Writers that she never really knew. Pitching the action in 1970, when she was a teenager, Ratushinskaya presents us with a world that she knows only at second hand, through the accounts of friends and archival research.

The novel begins with the mysterious death of an undesirable writer, believed to have left behind a dangerous, unpublished manuscript. The search taken on by the KGB involves literary characters of various generations and persuasions, most prominently Nikolin, a likeable bachelor and children's writer. Above them all stands the mafia-like structure of the Fifth Directorate, heartless to outsiders and protective of its own. In 1970 - the most terrifying year for the Soviet intelligentsia since Stalin's death - it was an organisation buffeted by the new threat of the psychiatric hospital. Advances in neuroleptic medicine had instilled a near-superstitious fear that the human personality could be radically changed. The KGB took full advantage.

Ratushinskaya's approach to recreating this climate of fear is conscientious to the point of being over-deliberate. She reflects the claustrophobia of the Soviet writers' world without succeeding in bringing to life the human experience engendered by the nightmare. The novel seems caught, perhaps for ethical reasons, between a documentary and fictional account. The horror of subservience to the censors and the KGB is projected through ill-defined, two-dimensional characters who communicate none of the emotional immediacy typical of Ratushinskaya's voice as a lyric poet. Like an undersized Dostoevsky thriller, Fictions and Lies, and its gradually disentangling subplots, are peopled by a gallery of characters, distinguished one from another largely by moral merit or social station and only in the last instance by physical reality. Meanwhile, the moral certainty that pulls a convincing message from Dostoevsky is strangely lacking in Fictions and Lies, which peters out like the final act of a Chekhov play - a recognition, perhaps, that, as an exile who suffered other kinds of tribulations, the author is not best placed to pass judgement on those left behind.

The value of the book lies mainly in its "documentary" status, which, I hope, will provide a starting point for those better qualified to explain a historical context unfamiliar in the west and still largely taboo in Russia. The Union of Writers, which both cocooned and imprisoned its members with its privileges and rivalries, is presented as a world apart, where accidents are impossible - a kind of reverse Utopia.

Circulating rumours and operating through accomplices both witting and unwitting, the KGB miraculously sustained the fragile conspiracy, keeping true to its motto: "Minimum efforts with maximum results". For, as long as no one inside the system traded their security for heroism, the crystal palace stayed on its feet. And nobody in Ratushinskaya's novel, not even the noble Nikolin, who refuses to co-operate, is prepared actively to sabotage the system. In this context, non-cooperation can itself become a form of complicity and self-compromise.

Oliver Ready is books editor of the "Moscow Times"

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet