Frank Westerman - Engineers of the Soul
Back on December 2011 I had never heard about this book and its author.
The only Dutch journalist familiar to me (after a semester spent studying journalism in the Netherlands on 2008) was Geert Mak whose European travelogue I enjoyed but whose book on the Galata bridge in Istanbul left me lukewarm.
Then my girlfriend and I had the chance of hosting Elke from Brussels and our guest introduced us to some brilliant conversations, tasty food and a handful of Dutch and Belgian novelists, among them Mr Westerman and his work over Soviet-time novelists, this book.
Well, actually calling Engineers of the Soul a book about Soviet writers is not making any justice to what Westerman managed to accomplish here: a fascinating work which combines literary criticism with travelogue writing and social history of the USSR with reporting on the Russia of early 2000s.
And much more. All balanced in a perfect way and providing very convincing insights on what Westerman aimed to reach and why he wanted to get it, which is what seem to lack in the books written by his countryman Mak.
I particularly liked the passion behind and beyond this book.
Westerman hasn't just done his reporter homework on behalf of the NRC Handelsblad ("our intellectual newspaper" quoting one of my Dutch professors years ago). Quite the reverse!
The author here is very able to engross the readers on his investigation on how to Soviet power, censorship and socialist expectations influenced the literary production of a handful of prominent Russian writers between the 1930s and the 1950s.
Those who have a fair knowledge of Russian literature of the last century can find names they already know like those of Babel, Platonov, Pasternak, Shokolov and a focus on the influential and controversial role played by Gorki in the whole Soviet literary movement.
But it's while talking of supposedly minor socialist novelists like that Paustovsky the book starts from and ends with that Engineers of the Soul displays its amazing qualities.
The fact is that in the early USSR there were ranks over ranks of either brilliant or mediocre novelists who were pretty much forced to write about the joy of canalization, the beauty of dams, the touching struggle of "volunteers", the technological achievements of the socialist motherland to please Lenin and then Stalin.
These novelists were controlled, checked, somehow tyrannized by a system and a network of informers who could not accept supposedly decadent, romantic, foreign-like novels coming out from the pens of its most known writers.
To put it straight: "Boy meets tractor" was properly Soviet, "Boy meets girl" was surely capitalist while "Boy meets girl, they meet tractor" could have been alright but also a Trotzkyist plot.
The girl coming before the tractor? Come on, tovarisch! That looks a little suspectful. Besides, who could have said whether the girl was a foreign agent therefore ready to weaken and corrupt the boy while sabotaging the tractor?
And because the stress of any given novel had to be put on a very specific range of topics, many writers started to flirt with hydrography, metallurgy, engineering. Novelists, poets and journalists were invited to collective literary expeditions with the goal to embellish the construction of the nth canal or dam built to accomplish ambitious and unrealistic plans.
Words like "cement", "dam", "steel", "turbine" and - of course - "tractor" found their way on the titles of thousand of ideological bestsellers published in the USSR before and after World War II.
This book tries to understand why this happened on such a wide scale and who among the socialist-friendly novelists tried to escape from the industrial cliche, quite often losing fame, reputation, a nice dacha and - accidentally - his own life or mental sanity in the process.
Westerman mentions banned poets and novelists of the period like Akhmatova or Mandelstam (but not Bulgakov!) and doesn't forget a famous ex-pat like Solzhenitsyn but does prefer to tell the stories of other people.
The so-called "engineers of the soul" are the authors who joined (sometimes despite themselves) the socialist club before falling into sudden disgrace. Hence we have plenty of poignant pages dedicated to the misfortunes of Platonov, Pasternak, Babel and the book-hero, the controversial Konstantin Paustovsky.
Just don't look at this book as a mere history of the Soviet literature, because Westerman travels through the country on his own looking for the documents he needs and the places portrayed by those socialist novelists. It's these visits to Stalingrad/Volgograd dams system, to the Russian Film Institute or to the forgotten White Sea Canal that I appreciated the most.
The nadir of the whole book is the long literary trip taken by its author on the footsteps of Paustovsky as far as Turkmenistan during the heydays of former communist politician (and electrical engineer) creative dictator Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov.
There on the salty desert shores of the mysterious bay of Kara Bogaz, Westerman finds many of the answers he looks for while new questions arise.
This book has a rare gift: it's magic - a magical and sour realism - and it will always keep a special place on any future bookshelves of mine.