Veteran espionage novelist Littell (Vicious Circle; The Company; etc.) trades cold war spies for interwar Russian poets in his wonderful new novel. In 1934, real-life poet Osip Mandelstam struggles to get published in the totalitarian state. A battered idealist who has witnessed his share of Stalin-orchestrated horrors, Mandelstam feels writers have "an abiding responsibility to be truth tellers in this wasteland of lies." Much to the despair of his fellow poets, Osip writes an epigram likening Stalin to a ruthless killer, leading to Osip's arrest, brutal interrogation and exile. The robust narrative employs an array of narrators, including Osip's devoted wife, Nadezhda; his disloyal lover, actress Zinaida Zaitseva-Antonova; and Stalin's personal bodyguard, Nikolai Vlasik. The most intriguing voice heard is that of Fikrit Shotman, a weightlifter turned circus strongman who shares a cell with Osip and whose journey from Moscow prison to Siberian gold mine perfectly captures the absurdity of life under tyranny. Littell is unflinching in his portrayal of Osip's tragic arc, bringing a troubled era of Russian history to rich, magnificent life.
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