Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, is an extraordinary book, and I urge you to read it.
It’s a very clever book, set in the USSR of the 1950s and 60s – the days of Nikita Khrushchev, and when there were concerns about whether the state-owned Soviet economy might actually outdo the market economies of the West.
We’ve all seen Khrushchev portrayed by Bob Hoskins in Enemy at the Gates – a superb and chilling performance, in a wonderful film. And a couple of weeks ago I went to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where at one point, in amongst all the over-under-acting and slow progress direction about a story about spies doing little except spying on each other, it refers to the resignation of Khrushchev.
After the movie, I said to the company we were in, by way of changing the subject from discussions about the meaning of the film, whilst Fat Mac was up buying double rounds for himself at the bar, “I really didn’t know that Khrushchev retired. I assumed he’d died in office.” “No” a knowledgeable person replied, “He resigned not too long after the Cuban fiasco.” I didn’t know that. All I remember, as a child in the late 50s, was my Dad worrying about whether he’d need to get his army kit out once more, to fight Khrushchev’s Ruskies.
BTW, Khrushchev’s son, Sergei Nikitich Khrushchev, now lives in the USA. He was a rocket scientist.
Red Plenty includes a mixture of real and imaginary characters, and tells about the gradual change in the USSR from a planned economy to what came next. It includes a certain amount of economic theory, without being in the least bit dry, and it describes events from the perspectives of a number of characters in very different circumstances. These even include Khrushchev after he had retired.
There’s a chapter about giving birth to a baby. It’s just stuck in there, from page 302 to page 318. The chapter is called Psychoprophylaxis, 1966. I assume that the chapter is a metaphore for the birth pangs that the USSR went through as part of the Kosygin reforms from a totalitarian and controlled economy to what came next (as I said previously, it’s a clever book), and this chapter is a nice literary ploy. Not only that, but it happens to be the best literary birth-pain experience that you’re likely to read. And it is written by a man!
Mothers! Read this chapter first, and you will understand how clever and realistic this book is.
I’ve suffered various kidney stones in the past, and that’s supposedly the closest that a man can come to the birth experience, in terms of pain. As a result, I think I could, in my own way, relate to what Galina went through (watching the seconds tick by on the clock, between contractions). But, and the analogy continues, because she is ‘connected’, Galina eventually gets some morphine. As does the Soviet economy, under Kosygin’s guidance.
There’s another very clever chapter which includes details of how tobacco smoke can sometimes cause cancer, which is interspersed with a story about one of the characters, Lebedev, a pioneering Soviet computer designer, who visits Kosygin. Once again, you simply have to read this bit to see how clever it all is. There are chapters which very acccurately capture how researchers often behave towards each other. There’s a chapter about the Novocherkassk massacre of 1962. There’s quite a few references to Gosplan. Yet, because of the way everything is related to real and fictitious characters, the book is not at all a heavy read.
After reading the following, I had to look up the meaning of ‘sfumato’, but what writing!
“He tumbles down and down into the cough. It’s all mucus in there, no air, no air, and he can’t bring up the lump of noxious matter that’s blocked his passages and he can’t get out of the strugglle to shift it either. He’s choking. His ears roar. His vision pocks with little breeding asterisks of light, coagulated across the dim sfumato of the corridor. His head drops between his knees. Hack. Hack. Hack. Panic, and beyond panic to the threshold of a dizzy indifference. Then the obstruction comes free, drops out as a vile, metallic mouthful. Shaky-handed wiping; spitting; wiping.”
In the Acknowledgements, Spufford writes “Librarians are the unsung heroes of the world. And indispensable in any project as perverse as this one.”
Nice one. Read this book!