“Music may be immortal, but composers, alas, are not. They are easily silenced, and even more easily killed.”
Following the great success of his 2011 novel, The Sense of an Ending, there has been much anticipation surrounding the wait for Julian Barnes’s next effort. In a different approach to his previous novel, The Noise of Time is an imagining of the internal struggle of the real-life composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, a man whose life spanned out the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
Through the blend of the fictional and the real, Barnes explores a polemic often overshadowed by art and literature within historical dictatorships or periods of absolute rule: music. From Stalin’s mere disliking of a once well-received opera, Shostakovich found his masterpiece to be what allowed the Union to dictate his way of life until his old age. Barnes sets out to demonstrate the power of music within society and the danger it brought with it.
The novel spans out across three key periods in Shostakovich’s life. While heavily focused on his personal thoughts during this time, the lives of his musical contemporaries and his lovers, both of the past and present, are infused into the story throughout.
The common themes of betrayal, paranoia and injustice that are often found in literature documenting the Cold War, are all present but in a very realistic sense. Readers are left constantly in suspense, waiting with Dmitri for the KGB to arrive at his door. While this never happens, the constant return to the hallway in preparation for the rival does not feel repetitive; instead, it merely increases the sense of dread that both Shostakovich and the reader share. The rising fear and suspicion endured by Dmitri are mirrored in Barnes’ command of language, particularly in his personification of power. Dmitri’s frequent references to ‘power’ as a single entity is increasingly ominous, and yet it effectively presents the Soviet dictatorship as one that is both detached and anonymous, controlled by a series of often unseen, unknown faces.
As well as exploring the Communist rule of terror, Barnes also sets out to highlight the delusional opinions that characterised the Western view of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This is particularly with the idea that the Russians were both complacent and complicit in the mass mistreatment and manipulation of the nation. There are many moments in which the protagonist is in dialogue with himself, voicing the naïve and idealistic opinions of both the masses and real-life figures, including Bernard Shaw.
He acknowledges the ‘enemies’ who criticise his docile nature and inability to create new music, and Barnes achieves this in a way that allows Dmitri’s inner worries to reflect the composer’s own and those of the Soviet masses. Once more, this dialectical style of writing is done in an unpretentious and very striking manner. This book is filled with phrases that are so coherently and beautifully written that they will stay with you long after reading them.
Without a doubt, Barnes has succeeded the high expectations of the people who waited with bated breath for the release of The Noise of Time. In a work that feels both original and authentic, he encourages us to consider the importance of art, in whatever form, and the influence it can have on us all.
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