It’s rare to see anything brave or daring emerge from a mainstream publisher these days. For the most part, they are inhibited by those who cling more dearly to accounts ledgers than fine literature and as a result are perpetually unprepared to take a risk on anything new. Truly, they seem to be more willing to look for the next Dan Brown or Dick Francis than for something genuinely extraordinary. How refreshing it is to see Faber & Faber willing to invest in this new work by Francis Spufford, a work which isn’t quite fiction, isn’t quite history, and whose first sentence assures us that it isn’t a novel.
I find it difficult to describe “Red Plenty” in a few words; it could accurately be called a series of vignettes interspersed by history essays. It could be also be characterised as a series of interlocking short stories which are partitioned by explanatory notes (I prefer this option, but neither explanation is totally accurate). In any event, Spufford may have invented a new means by which history is told; he tried to not only to capture the substance of events but also the gist of them in the lives of both the great and the humble. Even more courageously, he chose a period in the history of the Soviet Union during which there was a widely-held determination that Communism was going to match and surpass the capitalist west in economic terms, a prospect which seems utterly ridiculous to those of us living after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Writing this book was a brave endeavour. What made the task almost ludicrously valorous was Spufford’s admission that he neither speaks nor reads Russian.
Spufford sets the scene by fictionalising Khrushchev’s visit to America in 1959, in which he makes a wild, if well-intentioned boast to his hosts that the USSR would overtake the USA. That same year, the Americans brought an exhibition to Moscow; we are introduced to two (fictional) young Communists who heckle the American tour guide about race relations in the United States out of a misplaced, if strong sense of duty. Through another story, we are introduced to a mathematical genius who is going to introduce a pricing system which will help the centrally planned economy become more efficient. Computers of the old kind filled with glowing vacuum tubes, are introduced as a solution to achieving the mighty mathematical feat. We are also told about how the Soviet Union intended to gather its best minds in a remote Siberian town just for academics (a real place entitled Akademgorodok); we are shown that it was a haven for scientists in fields as badly regarded by the Communist leadership as genetics. Jazz and skinnydipping are also allowed. At this point in the book, the future looks relatively bright if almost too blinding; Spufford not only introduced the raw facts about the period, but he captured the optimistic mindset which prevailed from the top down.
But then it starts to go sour, mostly due to incompetence. We are introduced to the managers of a viscose fibres factory who destroy their own machine as they cannot fulfill the requirements of the Five Year Plan; they hope to get a new, more efficient machine which will enable them to meet their targets. Not that it’s particularly good that they’re producing anything in the first place: the reader is informed the factory’s effluent is poisonous. Be that as it may, because of another wrinkle in the Plan, the manufacturer is obliged to send them a machine of the old design. It would seem that the price of machines is based upon their weight, and since the new machine was less hefty than the old one, it cost less. In order to meet their sales target, they needed to sell the older, more obese product.
In the real world, as well as Spufford’s fictional universe, a class of white collar criminals was created to overcome such obtacles. Spufford introduces us to a character named Cherkuskin who is one such “entrepreneur”, in perhaps what is the most brilliantly told story in the book. Cherkuskin is introduced as a man who enjoys Spanish dancing, and his love of “fancy footwork” extends to his employment. He deals with party officials, factory managers, thieves; his presence is the lubricant in the system, he makes its rusty, badly designed gears turn. He uses charm, vodka, threats and bribery in order to shift resources and people so that everyone gets to live yet another day. While we are not fully told about the results of his efforts on behalf of the viscose fibre factory managers, based on the display of his prodigious talents, we can only assume that his work will yield results.
Optimism falls over after Khrushchev is removed in 1964; his frustration with inability to change the Soviet Union quickly enough led to rash decisions, such as the attempt to split the Communist Party into two divisions, one dedicated to agricultural concerns, the other focused on industry. Fed up with such ill thought-out wheezes, his colleagues removed him; afterwards, rather than matching the West, the new leadership is merely content with things just the way they are. Repression seeps in; we are told the tale of an academic banished from the intelligensia’s Siberian enclave because of signing an inopportune letter. The ideas on rational pricing are shelved; old controls are re-imposed. Torpor seeps in; the dream dies, in the end the Soviet Union is set for its collapse, the curtain falls. Spufford’s talent lay in keeping the reader’s attention throughout; both fiction and history bubble together in a stew which has a peculiar flavour, but it works. The narrative is coherent, the stories interesting, even the historical interludes are charmingly told. Perhaps this may prove to be an object lesson to the likes of Faber & Faber; it’s not always wrong to take risks, indeed, as the book perhaps ironically proves, organisations which refuse to take chances on something new can seal their own doom.