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David Szalay: The Innocent

Aleksandr is an MGB (precursor of the KGB) major in 1948. He is assigned a fairly routine task – to check out Anatoly Yudin, who has surfaced in a mental hospital near Sverdlovsk. Yudin had been a celebrated concert pianist. He had been the first Soviet pianist (second in the world) to record all of Bach’s the Well-Tempered Clavier. While at the conservatory, he had been under the influence of a professor called Haussmann. It was Haussmann who had steered him towards Bach. When he had finished recording the Well-Tempered Clavier, it was early in the war and the Soviet Union was now opposed to Germany, so the release of his recording was suspended. He appealed to Haussmann but Haussmann was German and had been deported. Her wrote to Haussmann, suggesting that he would join him in Germany, where he had so many friends. His letter was intercepted. Meanwhile, no longer finding work as a pianist, he had joined the army. When his letter was intercepted but before he could be arrested, he was killed in a action. Only, as the MGB had now discovered, he had not been killed but badly wounded – part of his head had been shot away – and he was now in the hospital. The MGB still wanted him as a Nazi sympathiser.

Aleksandr interviews Yudin and the director of the hospital, Lozovsky. Indeed, he stays with Lozovsky and his wife, Nadezhda, as the hospital is fairly remote and there seems to be a problem with the trains. It is clear to Aleksandr that Yudin is in a bad way and has little memory of even who he is, let alone what happened to him. However, he has done some writing where he mentions his mother and sisters and this seems to imply that maybe he is not in such a bad way. In any case, when Aleksandr reports back, he is told that Yudin must be examined by MGB doctors, to ensure that he is not faking. However, for this to happen Lozovsky has to sign a release form and he refuses to do so. He is informed of the consequences of his refusal but continues to refuse. Some of his old writings are found and he is shown to be anti-Communist and arrested. His successor signs the release forms. Aleksandr feels somewhat guilty about this and, when Lozovsky is sent to prison, he offers to help Nadezhda.

The novel is told in alternating sections, the first being Aleksandr’s diaries from 1948 and the second an account, told by an omniscient narrator, of what has happened to Aleksandr subsequently, set in 1972. Aleksandr has remained a committed communist and is quite bitter about the subsequent liberalisation under Khrushchev. He is now retired – we later learn the details of his career and his retirement – and spends much of his time with his brother, Ivan, a journalist, who was implicated in the Lozovsky affair. In particular, he reflects on the Yudin/Lozovsky affair and the implications it had both for his career and private life, as well as what it meant for the MGB and the Soviet state.

Telling the story from the point of view of a KGB agent and making us feel a certain sympathy with him are very well done. He also shows us how Aleksandr and, presumably, other Soviets, felt during 1972, particularly as relating to sporting events – losing to West Germany in the European Championship, the Fischer-Spassky chess tournament, the Munich Olympics and the Canada-Soviet Union ice hockey series. While Szalay clearly does not like what went on in the Soviet Union, this not your typical anti-Soviet rant but, much more, an attempt to see the Soviet Union from the perspective of a man who, while aware of some of its flaws, does consider its ways are essentially right. What I did find somewhat frustrating is that several plot strands are introduced, such as the stories of Yudin and of Nadezhda as well as Lozovsky’s involvement with Yudin and then dropped without being concluded. This novel makes no attempt at being a post-modernist novel where it is expected that plot lines will be introduced and then dropped so this becomes something of a distraction, as you expect the plots to continue but they do not. However, it is still a very creditable if low-key attempt to show the Soviet Union from the inside.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Vintage