Everyone is watched; everyone is watching
Because I’ve recently read Helen Dunmore’s latest book, Exposure*, set in England in the middle of the Cold War, and found it exceptional, I decided to read her last book, The Betrayal. This, I am reminded, follows on from a book she wrote which was published in 2001, The Siege, set in Leningrad during the Second World War. The central characters in that book, or some of them, are central in this, which has jumped forward some years to 1952. Russia is locked down in a fearful totalitarian society. This is the last year of Stalin’s life, though of course no one knows that till he dies.
Dunmore captures superbly how rigidly and implacably totalitarian systems – of any political or ideological thinking, work. When the received isms must be adhered to, come what may, systems protect their own, and individuals within the systems are aware that who is in favour today may not be in favour tomorrow. People self-censure, self-police, and inform on each other readily, because not to inform on infringements of thought, speak, deed risks the person choosing not to shop their relative or neighbour being accused of complicity and sabotage.
So, entering into the lives of the central characters, Andrei, a compassionate paediatrician, his wife Anna, an artist, now nursery teacher, and Anna’s younger brother Kolya, is to inhabit a landscape far more nerve-wracking and chilling than a mere plot-driven thriller, because life, in that time and place, really was like that.
When the son of a senior member of the MGB, the Ministry for State Security, the Secret Police, falls ill, and the suspicion is that the illness is terminal, none of the senior careerist doctors want anything to do with his case, because if treatment fails, and the boy dies, his powerful father is likely to accuse the medical team of deliberate acts of sabotage and subversion.
And, unlikely and fictional as that might sound to those of us who live in democracies, this merely mirrors a real purge and punishment which was happening at the time, the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, a primarily Anti-Semitic drive against Jewish doctors in the last year of Stalin’s life. A couple of political high ups had died, one from alcohol abuse, one from heart attack. A complete conspiracy to murder prominent political figures was constructed, and a series of confessions, naming of conspirators, and the like, fabricated. It was only after Stalin’s death and slowly seeping movement away from such extreme totalitarianism that the fabrication was admitted.
She’d allowed herself to drop her guard. She’d believed that things really might be different after the war. Surely people would have had enough of death. Andrei, too, had hope for better things. Otherwise, suffering was just suffering; purposeless and mechanical. You couldn’t allow yourself to believe that.
People said that Leningrad’s heroism would be rewarded. No other city had held out for so long. Paris had fallen in forty days. Leningrad had held out for nine hundred, and had never fallen, no matter how many shells rained down on it. They had starved in thousands, and then in hundreds of thousands, but in the end it had been the Germans who retreated.
It seemed impossible now that they had really done the things they’d done. That they’d lived, let alone continued to work and to fight
The Betrayal follows the consequences of Andrei compassionately deciding to treat the young boy because of the duty of care he owes to all his patients, despite the fact that colleagues are advising he should, like his careerist colleague, wash his hands of the case, and dump it on someone else. Despite the correctness of treatment protocols, incurable conditions are unlikely to be cured. A grieving parent who is also a powerful, autocratic figure upholding a monolithic system by constant surveillance of thought crimes and worse, is likely to find the need to blame ‘someone’ an easier option than to accept the randomness of terminal illness happening to their child
Dunmore’s plot, characters, background and atmosphere, not to mention her writing itself, are all superb
*I’ll be posting my review of Exposure nearer to its end of the month publication date