Ken Kalfus’s The Commissariat of Enlightenment has some brilliant passages of startling and beautiful descriptions. The observations about the role of cinema and the visual in modern life are made more striking by the obvious reliance in the text on the written word. In one scene describing the interior of a movie theater Kalfus so captures the intimacy and community of the theater experience that I had to wonder whether this was a book made to be a movie. And yet, it’s not the sort of book that wants to be a movie and has been written imagining its later adaptation (think here The Da Vinci Code), but rather creates such vivid scenes that are plotted in such a way to create an affinity between the text and the visual. I wouldn’t want to see this as a film, as I loved the third person limited narration of Gribshin/Astapov and the often subtle, but nevertheless disruptive shift in narrative voice (almost as though the narrative camera had panned elsewhere). I will admit that the shifts in narrative voice at times left me frustrated and disoriented (however intentional such an experience might have been).
The novel opens with Tolstoy’s death and ends with Lenin’s. My favourite scenes came in the last pages as Lenin narrates posthumously the comings and goings and rapid shifts in time and power. I thought to recommend this book to my colleague who studies “time and narrative,” because the novel’s meditations on the beginning and end of political and social eras as tied to technology is fascinating, and utterly appropriate for our time. I should read more about Russian history. I say this without any intention or plan to act accordingly, but whenever I read bits and pieces of the story I am reminded of how fascinating a history it must be. Good thing N. knows the history well, as questions about Gorbachev and Stalin always come up at quiz night, and I never know. Alas, having read this book won’t help, as the history was focused on how propaganda participated in the Revolution, and not, so much at all, on the politics of the Revolution itself. So there you go.