To believe in the power of art to create or change politics (for the better) is no small thing. Such belief requires an implicit optimism that the despair and risks of the political moment (of now or any time) has difficulty supporting. Cynicism is a logical, rational response to the political moment of Trump, or in the case of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time : Stalin. The personal danger of resisting the cynical impulse by creating art is the question of the novel. Personal danger in the form of arrest, detention, torture and death, but also the danger of abandoning the illogical optimsim inherent in creating art. Following the life of Russian composer Shostakovich under Stalin, The Noise of Time bears a (somewhat unsettling*) uncanny resemblance to Thein’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing in its exploration of how artists must negotiate threats to personal and familial safety and life in order to create their works, and the ways these artists attempt (more and less successfully) to use art to subvert (authoritarian) power.
The danger of course is that we collectively abandon the (albeit irrational) faith in art to make change. “Irony, he had come to realise, was as vulnerable to the accidents of life and time as any other sense. You woke up one morning and no longer knew if your tongue was in your cheek; and even if it was, whether that mattered anymore, whether anyone noticed” (190). That we occupy a moment in time where irony pervades is neither a new argument nor a particularly interesting one. As a foolhearty optimist, one who believes in community (and art!), I console myself that it is an act of bravery (risking very little – just humiliation in social settings) to declare belief; to see sincerity not as an antiquated or unfashionable choice but as its own form of courage. So I urge you (as always) to read.
*I say unsettling because it strikes me as no accident that these novels emerge in this moment of political peril. Novels written about other artists the metafictional thread of the danger writers encounter under repressive regimes is never far from the surface for the reader. Intensely aware that freedom of expression is neither an inherent nor a universal we have – as readers and as citizens – a moral obligation to consider (to discuss, to advocate) not only what protections we afford artists, but how we can support their vital work in expressing the ethos of the time.
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