9 January 2017

Jean-Daniel Baltassat: Le Divan de Staline (2013)

I'd always believed that it was William Burroughs who said (something like) 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you', although Google seems to pin that one on Joseph Heller in Catch 22. Which is a pity to me as it sounds very Burroughs, but it's as good a way as any to begin a few words about Jean-Daniel Baltassat's Le Divan de Staline, which doesn't seem to have been translated, and which Fanny Ardant directed as a film of the same name starring the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu way back in, er, 2016.

I'd be tempted to translate the title as 'Stalin's Psychiatric Couch', although many people I suppose wouldn't quite agree with me. This is a fictionalization of the final days of Stalin, written by a novelist who has claimed himself incapable of writing anything other than fiction. The main characters here are of course the seventy-year-old Stalin himself, plus the young painter Danilov chosen to design a memorial fresco of Stalin, and his much younger lover Vodieva, with whom Stalin has been for twenty-seven years. OK, I suppose we can also include the dead 'character' Freud, here labeled 'the Viennese charlatan' by Stalin.

Danilov arrives at the former palace in Borjomi, Georgia, where an ageing Stalin is living a life surrounded by bodyguards, steeped in paranoia. Towards the end of the book, Baltassat has Stalin say something which not only might serve as Danilov's life there, but also that of anyone who lived under his régime. My translation:

'Man's greatest misfortune is to be afraid of everything, even his own shadow. But his other great misfortune is to lie to himself and no longer recognize that he is afraid.'

Stalin is depicted as wary to the point of obsession: he will not eat unless someone has finished the same meal before him, he is surrounded by bodyguards, visitors are searched, everyone is mistrusted. Furthermore, he is obsessed with his own power, not allowing anyone to sleep before he's gone to bed, having visitors cross-examined, maintaining a close knowledge of everyone he comes into contact with, etc. But on the other hand, although he mistrusts anything which smacks of the perceived bourgeois avant-garde, he comes across as a highly educated mass murderer.

This could almost be read as a highly entertaining cold war thriller of the twenty-first century, except that it's also quite amusing. A quick, but riveting read in just over three hundred pages.

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