Title: The Case of Comrade Tulayev
Author: Victor Serge
Serge, Victor (1968). The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin,
Date Updated: June 23, 2015
Review by Nicholas Lezard.
Why, asks Susan Sontag in her first-rate introduction to this first-rate novel, isn’t Victor Serge more acclaimed these days? Perhaps it is because there is too much to grasp at once.
To start with Serge: born in Brussels in 1890 to émigré Russians, he became a political activist in Paris and landed in prison for five years. Arriving in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevist revolution, he rose high in the Comintern before becoming increasingly disturbed by the emergence of Stalin and the brutal repression of dissent. Serge was expelled from the party in 1928, and arrested shortly afterwards. He was released and turned to writing fiction and history. Not writing the kind of fiction or history that appealed to the censors, he was arrested again in 1933. André Gide, who had once said he would sacrifice his life for the Soviet Union, was one eminent figure who campaigned for his release, and, amazingly, Serge was released.
As you can see, it’s a rather incident-filled life so far, and it remained so: you can find out the rest when you buy the book. History has treated him shabbily because he was denouncing Stalin at a time when bien-pensant intellectuals outside the USSR were disposed to ignore such criticisms (and a good many anti-communists at the time were, it must be remembered, strikingly unlovely people); afterwards, it was too late. Serge died in 1947. As he himself wrote, in another context: “History can only impose its solutions by running people over.”
But The Case of Comrade Tulayev is one of the great 20th-century Russian novels, important not only in its subject matter but in its style. Serge may have been a man of extremely uncommon principle, and a fully-fledged man of action, but he was also a sensitive and well-read literary man, alive not only to Russian literary heritage but to contemporary international stylistic developments.
Tulayev begins in an almost classic Russian fashion, as two lowly clerks, Romachkin and Kostia, neighbors on either side of a flimsy partition (which even manages to divide their fireplace in two), cope with grinding poverty. We are firmly in the land of Gogolian absurdity, but the absurdity here is realized by the pronouncements of officialdom. “What—you really believe that the day will come when men won’t have lice? True Socialism—eh?—with butter and sugar for everybody? Maybe, to increase human happiness, there’ll be soft, perfumed lice that caress you?”
Kostia gets hold of a revolver and, one night, on an impulsive whim, shoots Tulayev, a high-ranking official he believes responsible for numerous injustices. The machinery of the state then wheels into action, trying to find the killer, and the novel suddenly opens up its vistas, as more and more people—though never Kostia himself—are drawn into the net of suspicion, accusation, terror and false confession which characterized the Soviet Union at the time. The action moves from Moscow to Barcelona to Paris—but above all, to the far-flung gulags and prisons where the non-conspirators are sent.
Were that all, the novel would still be an important testament, for Serge knew whereof he spoke. But it isn’t all. Serge could not silence the poetry within him. There may be clusters of official acronyms throughout the novel—ineluctably so, given the setting—but there are extraordinary passages of natural description, a beauty that defies what takes place within it, and, more importantly perhaps, the sense that no single person in the novel is less than a true character, as opposed to an abstraction or caricature. Even Stalin, who makes a couple of appearances, is no monster. Neither is he a cuddly Uncle Joe. But was ever a dictator portrayed with more convincing restraint than when an investigator reports to him that someone has “confessed” to sabotage? “The word confessed produced a distinct feeling of discomfort between them.”
And that is just one of many reasons why the novel is still well worth reading now.