While Makine is Russian-born (writing in French) and Szalay is Canadian-born, these two works have much in common. Short, but genuinely epic in scope, showing how individual lives were shaped by the tectonic movements of the Soviet system. Neither work shirks the oppression, vindictiveness and horror of that system (and reading both I was struck by parallels with the groupthink of social media). Both also refuse to paint Soviet lives of ones of unremitting horror, depicting also the strange loyalty the system evoked, for all its corrupting and corruption.
This from the Guardian review of “The Innocent” is worth quoting:
Write about what you know is the sensible, dull advice given to novice writers. In the case of his first novel, London and the South-East, David Szalay did just that – and won the Betty Trask prize, perhaps tapping into the fact that a seemingly staggering number of us have been involved in the black art of telephone sales. London and the South-East was untypical of an English novel in its exploration of undocumented perimeter space: makeshift telesales offices and behind-the-scenes infrastructures of giant supermarkets.
While most novelists, like tennis pros, repeat the same few strokes, Szalay’s second book appears to be by a quite different writer – utterly foreign and eschewing the humour of desperation that marked his debut. It’s brave, perhaps even foolhardy, to go from the near at hand to something as unfamiliar as Soviet Russia in 1948 and 1972, and the internal workings of a police state. The Innocent is muted and sparse in detail, written in trimmed prose, marked by private regret and a controlled laconicism that is shown to be in keeping with how personal emotion becomes a victim to self-censorship in states of repression.