By Sofia Jesus
The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes, is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Powerful in telling. Powerful in writing. Powerful in truth.
The book tells the story of Russian composer Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906-1975). But it doesn’t feel quite like a biographical novel — actually, in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, quoted in a note at the end of the book, the author rejected that label: “All novels are biographical – it means the study of life.”
The Noise of Time tells the story of a character who happened to be a real person, in a real historical context. We do believe what we read; but not that much because of the multiple references to real people or historical facts, which do show a thorough background work by the author — we believe it because it is a novel, because it is a masterpiece of literature.
The narrator, in the third person, is masterly used by the author to draw us into the action, into the characters’ mind, into history and the noise of time, really. It feels close to us — so close that, at times, I thought it would be a character in the plot.
So, if in the beginning of the book I naively thought I was about to read the story of the rise and fall of Dmitri Dmitrievich, I soon realised I was in presence of a much more complex narrative; a much more complex character; a much more complex time — humanity, as it is.
Though the novel is neatly structured in three parts — by the lift; in the plane; in the car — corresponding to three important moments of Shostakovich’s life — all marked by a talk with the Power and separated by 12-year cycles — there are no labels to this or that phase of time. As the narrator keeps telling us, nothing really starts on an exact time and place — it starts on many places and on many minds.
The story of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich — portrayed not as hero nor as a foe — is the story of the relation between art and power. But it goes way beyond that. The story of how he survived the repressive regime of Staline — and of others who followed him — has all the ingredients of a psychological thriller. At one point, in the first part of the book, the narrator says: “So this is what History came to. All that effort and idealism and hope and progress and science and art and conscience, and all ends like this, with a man standing by a lift, with a small suitcase containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away”.
It is the story of a life dictated by terrifying fear — as so many in that time. It is the story of the moral struggle of an artist dealing with an oppressive regime that led him to keep subscribing views he did not agree with, only to keep him and his family safe. A dilema between individual honesty and artistic honesty that leaves you breathless.
“Even if they cut my two hands, I will continue to write music with a pen in my mouth,” Dmitri Dmitrievich once told his friends, trying to soften the tension when threats against him started. But as the narrator would tell us a few lines ahead, “in Stalin’s Russia, there were no composers writing with a pen in their mouths”. “From now on, there would be only two kinds of composers: those alive and frightened; and those dead.”
So, the Noise of Time, by Man Booker prize-winning author Julian Barnes, is indeed one of the most powerful books I have ever read. And the most striking thing about it, to me, is that, sadly, the Power is still there today, terrifying Dmitri Dmitrieviches in too many places — and not that far away. History has learned nothing.
The Noise of Time
[Article based on the Portuguese translation edited by Quetzal, 2016]