The commissariat of enlightenment /

Joining the media circus that attends the deathbed of Tolstoy in 1910, ambitious cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin hopes to capture Tolstoy's death on film and encounters the scientist Vorobev and revolutionist Joseph Stalin.

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Main Author: Kalfus, Ken. (Author)
Format: Book
Published:New York : Ecco, 2003.
Edition:1st ed.
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Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Kalfus's two well-received short story collections (Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies) set a high standard for his first novel, a sweeping, quasihistorical fiction spanning two tumultuous decades in Russia. From the opening scenes at Leo Tolstoy's deathbed (and the surrounding media circus) to the rise of Stalin, the narrative unfolds with Kalfus's signature mix of carefully researched history, subtle social commentary and leaping, imaginative storytelling. Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. This knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from postrevolution chaos toward the Soviet state and its bureaucracies, one of which is the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the powerful agency in charge of propaganda. The cinematographer's fate merges with that of Comrade Astapov, director of the massive Red agitprop campaign. Those who resist the commissariat include a church congregation that refuses to give up its faith, an experimental theater director, and a resilient young woman who makes an abstract, pornographic film in the name of sexual education for women. Unforgettable re-creations of embalmer and scientist Vladimir Vorobev (who mummified Lenin), Joseph Stalin and Countess Tolstoy anchor the plethora of plot developments, which involve many minor-and major-characters with double identities and secret agendas that demand patience and close attention from the reader. Told in supple, witty and gritty prose, the story exhibits all the vigorous intelligence and vision readers have come to expect from Kalfus. (Feb. 1) Forecast: Kalfus has a following among young literati, and this novel should benefit from extensive review coverage. Two-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An inventive first novel briskly reimagines 20th-century Russian history. The story's first half (titled "Pre-") is set in 1910, at the remote railway station in Astapovo where Count Leo Tolstoy, having fled his estate, lies dying. The world beats a path to Astapovo. Young cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin works with the "Pathe freres" news service, which hopes to film the revered writer's final hours. A Dr. Strangelovian scientist, Professor Vorobev, offers to apply to the moribund Count his newly perfected technique for preserving "the qualities of the vital force in a dead animal"-as evidenced by the stuffed rat Vorobev carries everywhere with him. And, in the wake of the failed 1905 Revolution, comrades Lenin and Stalin scheme to share in the world attention focused on Astapovo, reasoning that "in the right hands, the Count can be transformed into a revolutionary hero. . . ." The rich comedy of these early scenes is skillfully darkened in the second half (entitled "Post-"), which takes place in 1919, after WWI and the successful October Revolution have totally altered the political and economic landscape. Kalfus (stories: PU-239, 1999, etc.) now turns his attention to pseudonymous "Comrade Astapov" (whom we've met previously), a veteran of the European War and connoisseur of the still-developing art of cinema, whose technical knowledge is now employed by the eponymous Commissariat, a recently formed ministry entrusted with reshaping all art forms in a manner suitable for the supposedly obedient (often recalcitrant) masses. Astapov's duties lead to an unexpected reunion with Professor Vorobev (madder than ever) and a climactic effort to "revive" the Soviet Party (so to speak) that will cast bizarre shadows over the eagerly anticipated "glorious future." A brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary. Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing he'd dreamed this up. Agent: Christy Fletcher/Carlisle & Co.

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