This is a fine biographical novel about the last years of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. We meet people like Anna Achmatova, Boris Pasternak, Stalin’s chauffeur, etc. Mandelstam was fed up with his marginal situation as a translator and with the tyrannical behaviour of Stalin.
One day in 1933 he wrote the Stalin Epigram, a poem denouncing Stalin in not to be misunderstood terms. He only read it to a few friends, but a few days later he was already arrested and ‘questioned’. He was sent to several Gulags during the next years until he died at last of cold and hunger in 1938.
Every chapter is told by another witness of the events. Although it isn’t heavy reading, the novel really sketches the world of suspicion and terror under Stalin.
The novel made me think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Marc Dugain’s Une exécution ordinaire.
What a world in which someone had to die for a simple — and not even good — poem.