Celebrity business has always been big business. The year 1910 is no different in a remote town in Russia called Astapovo. The Count, Leo Tolstoy, is living out his last hours in the stationmaster’s house. Considering what an important man The Count is, it is a given that his death will be “covered” extensively by the media. It turns out that media outlets from all over the world have descended upon the sleepy hamlet, desperately trying to grab at some nugget of information that might emanate from the papered doors of the stationmaster’s house. Among these news-hungry people is a young cameraman, Nikolai Gribshin, who works for the French movie company Pathe Freres.
As he tries to capture the drama of the events unfolding before him, Gribshin is convinced that the camera is a powerful weapon of the future. It can be channeled towards more “useful” ventures. At the melee in the station, Gribshin also meets two other interesting characters — one a scientist, Professor Vorobev, who strongly believes in immaculate embalming as a way of indefinitely preseving the present. The other is a “Caucasian” who it turns out is Stalin. In actuality, of course, Stalin was never around at the time of Tolstoy’s death. In a powerful what-if, author Ken Kalfus wonders how Stalin would have exploited these two powerfully potent media: the camera and the art of preservation. Stalin recognizes the potential of the cinematic medium early on and conveys his exuberance to Gribshin:
“The camera does not lie. The lens has no motives, no class background, no secret interests. It’s a piece of glass. It has no mechanism for lying. When we gaze at the cinema screen, regardless of how flickering and scratched the image, or the distractions of the cinema hall, or the competence of the cinematographer, we know that we peer through a transparent windowpane onto reality. Consider the potential: for education, for science, for documenting injustice, for ripping away the veil of lies thrown up by language.”
And so it happens that Gribshin leaves Astapovo with a potent knowledge of how to “assemble facts into something useful.”
The second half of the book is set in post-revolutionary Russia. The state is still vulnerable and the masses are ignorant. Enter Gribshin (renamed Astapov) as a member of The Commissariat of Enlightenment. The agency is nothing more than a propaganda machine meant to disseminate the word of Stalin and the Bolsheviks. Both Stalin and Astapov use the powerful media at their disposal to create material that will hold sway over the masses. Both are convinced that:
“a man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummeled, and manipulated (by the camera) so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion, Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.”
Toward the end when Comrade Lenin is on his deathbed, the embalmer, Professor Vorobev, is called in to preserve a certain vision of the leader requested by Stalin. After all, “leaders have to be more than known; their characters would have to be forged by narrative.”
Kalfus’s debut novel reminds one of the other famous novel set in Russia this season, The Slynx. While The Commissariat of Enlightenment does not share any similarities with The Slynx’s bizarre plotline, both novels maintain a stringent, almost unremitting focus on a plot that portrays the evils of a censored society. Kalfus has developed a whopper of a thesis, but his characters seem at times a little out of focus. In the beginning, Gribshin seems to be a young man full of promise. His transformation into the hard Astapov is a little fuzzy and unconvincing.
Throughout the novel, Kalfus’s imagery is striking. Of particular appeal is his use of light as a symbolism of many opposites: the black and white of the media circus as opposed to the desperate town at its edges, the black and white of the “ignorant superstitious masses” as opposed to the more “enlightened” radicals, and the black and white of the truths and lies told us by the camera.
The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a wonderful novel built around the basic premise of truths and half-truths. Kalfus warns, “even in the Western countries, where the written word had reigned for centuries, the bourgeois eye was increasingly overwhelmed by visual representations unhinged from language.” If that is indeed the case, one prays that the hand cranking the celluloid does not belong to an “Astapov”. In the modern world, now more than ever, we cannot afford a doctored version of reality.