Sunday, 7 September 2014

Book of the Month: The Betrayal (Helen Dunmore)

In 1952, an ageing and paranoid Joseph Stalin decided that it was time to put the doctors in Soviet Union to the sword. The deaths of high-positioned Soviet apparatchiks convinced Stalin that doctors were agents of the Western powers, out to assassinate Soviet leadership by poisoning it. (The truth, of course, was more prosaic. The men died from natural—and in some cases self-inflicted—reasons such as advanced alcoholism and heart failure; and nothing that the doctors could have done would have saved them.) The last grisly and gruesome episode of Stalin’s “terror” was unleashed, which ended, mercifully, after only a few months with his death.  Innocent doctors—several of them Jewish (Stalin was not anti-Semitic for religious reasons, but he considered Jews to be potential Fifth Elements), were arrested, and confessions were obtained from them by Stalin’s usual tactics (beat, beat, and beat some more). The numbers, initially small, quickly swelled up to hundreds.  Public opinion against the arrested doctors was mobilised; preposterous articles were published in Pravda about the “doctors’ plot”—uncovered by the vigilance of the loyal party members—designed to kill top Soviet leadership including Stalin himself. (The headline of the article, which set the tone of the article, was: “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians”). The idea was to build up public fervour, leading to show trials. The arrested doctors were lucky in comparison with the millions who perished in Stalin’s ‘terror’ of the 1930s (which probably inspired Mao Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution”  in the 1960s) because the dictator died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in March 1953. (According to Simon Sebag Montefiero’s excellent Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Stalin was alone in his study at night when he suffered a “cerebrovascular accident”, and his death was perhaps hastened because no medical help was immediately available.)  The new Soviet leadership quickly distanced itself from Stalin’s last, mostly pointless, act of vengeance. The trials—set to start in March 1953—were cancelled, and the doctors released.

The short-lasting episode against the Soviet doctors, in the last days of Stalin’s dictatorship, is the inspiration behind the Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore’s 2010 novel The Betrayal.
Dunmore, who won the inaugural (1996) Orange Prize for A Spell of Winter, enjoyed success of another sort with her 2001 novel The Siege which was commercial success. The Siege tells the story of the first (and the harshest) winter during the three-year siege of Leningrad by the Germans during the Second World War.

In The Betrayal we meet some of the characters in The Siege. It is almost ten years since the siege of Leningrad. Stalin, apparently immortal, is still ruling the Soviet Union. Andrei is a young paediatrician (with special interest in arthritic conditions) working in Leningrad’s hospital. His wife, Anna, works in a children’s nursery. Andrei and Anna live together with Anna’s younger brother, Kolya. We learn that Anna’s mother (also a physician) died in childbirth while her father, a writer and poet who fell out of favour in the 1930s and was ostracized (but was lucky enough not to have been sent to Siberia), died, together with Marina—a woman who probably became his partner after his wife’s death—, during the siege of Leningrad. Andrei and Anna are slowly building their lives from the wreckage of the Second World War, in Stalin’s Russia, taking care—as most under Soviet dictatorship did—not to do anything that would make them conspicuous. Then one day Andrei is approached by Russov, a highly positioned doctor in Andrei’s hospital, for a second opinion on a ten year old child who has been admitted with a swelling under his knee. The child is the son of a high ranking KGB officer named Volkov. Andrei senses a trap. Years of living under Stalin have taught Andrei that he should do his utmost to steer clear of anything that has to do with the party officials. He suspects that the child’s condition is potentially serious and Russov is trying to pass on the buck. Anna advises Andrei to call in off sick on the day he is supposed to see the boy. Andrei declines (did I forget to tell you that he is a conscientious doctor?) and examines the boy. His suspicions are confirmed. The child, he reckons, has a tumour growing on his bone. This is not his area of expertise at all and he decides to tell Russov who—Andrei knows—must have known this even before he asked Andrei for an opinion.  What the boy needs, Andrei thinks, is a good surgeon. However, any hopes Andrei might have had of wriggling out of the case are dashed when he is summoned to meet Volkov, the boy’s father. Volkov informs Andrei that his son has taken a liking for Andrei and he, Volkov, wants Andrei to be the doctor overall in charge of the case, never mind that he is not an expert in the field. Andrei recommends a biopsy of the swelling, which, he tells Volkov, is most probably a tumour. The biopsy is performed by a Jewish female surgeon called Brodskaya. The biopsy shows that the tumour is of a particularly malignant variety (called osteosarcoma) with poor prognosis. The only option which has a chance of saving the boy’s life is amputation of leg. Which is what Brodskaya—another conscientious, hard-working doctor—recommends. Andrei conveys the “expert opinion” to Volkov and suggests that in Leningrad Brodskaya is the best surgeon to carry out the operation (thus unwittingly doing to Brodskya what Russov did to him). Volkov is not happy. He is not happy that his son is going to lose his leg; and he is not happy that the surgeon who will carry out the operation is Jewish. In the end he agrees, threatening vaguely that there would be hell to pay if anything goes wrong. The operation is carried out; the boy is discharged; and Andrei thinks his ordeal is over. But it is not (we are only half-way through the novel). Within months the boy is back with symptoms that strongly suggest that the tumour, despite Brodskaya’s extensive surgery, has spread to lungs. The boy is going to die. Volkov is incandescent with rage. It is doctors’ fault; indeed it is more than just incompetence; it is a conspiracy, and the Jews are involved. His son is dying and the doctors will have to pay. Thus begins the nightmare for Andrei and Anna.  I shall not reveal how the plot develops for not wanting to give away too much, but anyone familiar with the “doctors’ plot” will have an idea the direction the novel is going to take.

The Betrayal is not an excessively complicated novel. Dunmore leaves the readers in no doubt as to which side she wants them to be on. It is a novel in which the characters are either black or they are white; there are no shades of grey. It is a battle between those who are beyond reproach and those who are ignorant, paranoid and vengeful. (Vulkov does show some promise at being more than just a two-dimensional, stereotypical KGB monster, but only fleetingly). Andrei and Anna are so perfect—hard-working, idealistic, conscientious, so very understanding of each other (Anna “understands” why Andrei would want to get involved with the Vulkov case even if that means trouble), and so much in love with each other—that you wish at times for them to have at least one good fight, or, failing that, unsatisfactory sex life; but no!, these two enjoy brilliant sex-life. The supporting cast of characters, like the protagonists of the novel, are neatly divided into good (Andrei and Anna’s friends) and weaselly (Russov who lands Andrei in trouble, and Maslov, the professor who refuses to stand by his protégée after Andrei’s fall from grace). As you read the novel, you do feel sorry for the plight of Andrei and Anna, but not excessively—and you feel guilty about it—because you find—there is no kinder way of saying this— them a bit dull.

The Betrayal is a novel of two halves. The first half of the novel is brilliantly paced. There is a sense of urgency and foreboding right from its first sentence (“It’s a fresh June morning without a trace of humidity, but Russov is sweating”) and the tension builds up from there on. Dunmore has done her research thoroughly (there is a page-long bibliography at the end of the novel and the reader is urged, in case he wants to know what other books Dunmore researched, to read the bibliography of The Siege) and she conveys superbly the atmosphere of oppression, suspicion, mistrust, and antagonism that many characters in the novel find themselves in the midst of, and which no doubt engulfed the Soviet society during Stalin’s dictatorship. The mindless drudgery, petty bureaucracy, and obsession of small-minded officials with numbers and statistics (which, they hope, will further their careers) that seem to have been endemic to many a Communist dictatorship, are described very drolly. The exhortations of Anna’s boss (at the children’s nursery) to collect more pointless data and deluge the mothers—tired by the daily grind of hard-work—with simplistic advice and information provide the only light relief in a novel which is grim almost till the end. 

By comparison, the second half of the novel drags a bit. As Dunmore describes, with obvious relish, Andrei’s ordeal in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow (where he is transferred), when he is interrogated, the reader can be excused for feeling a tad impatient, wanting to know how it all ends for him. While there is no doubt that the descriptions of Andrei’s torture in Lubyanka are authentic, they do tend to slow down what until then is an exquisitely paced novel. The end, when it comes, is a bit anti-climactic, but is probably in keeping with the resolution of the historical doctors’ plot. The ending also suggests that the reader shouldn’t at all be surprised if in due course a third novel featuring Andrei and Anna and their child(ren)—Anna gives birth to a daughter when Andrei is in prison— appears.