Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Curzio Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

The prose of Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball, is as stylistically inventive as its ideological perspective is historically destabilizing.  To read Malaparte, is to be bombarded by frenzied dialogue, absurdist plot lines, biting political satire, and madcap descriptions of Russia's Bolshevik elite in 1929. But to read Malaparte is also to be stunned by his depiction of the Soviet elite as just another decadent aristocracy.

Malaparte's vertiginous prose relies upon the stylistic conventions of journalism and creative fiction in equal measure.  The Italian diplomat, political actor, journalist, and cinematographer, frenetic plot has few analogues, but could perhaps be compared to the comic tone and modernist pyrotechnics in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.  The protagonist, an Italian diplomat with old-world charm, seems to regularly encounter Moscow's most inaccessible political actors, including Lunacharsky and Tolstoy's sister.  In terms of content, the protagonist seems intent on proving that Moscow's new revolutionary elite is every bit as pretentious and out of touch as Europe's most fragile ruling classes. 
Malaparte's novel seems as intimate as a roman a clef, only the circle of his protagonist's circle of acquaintances is large enough to include several dead people, including Lenin (slowly rotting despite the best efforts of embalmers) and Mayakovsky (whose suicide is interpreted as a revolutionary act of bourgeois romanticism). 

As one might expect, Malaparte's Stalin-directed Soviet Union of 1929 is militantly atheistic and awash in political orthodoxy.  However, it's also shockingly hypocritical.  Its leaders shop abroad, display their power to one another, and do their best to hang on to power for its own sake. Traditionally, the Soviet Union has been depicted as absurdly terrifying as it entered into the bloody 1930s.  But Mapaparte's genius is to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was terrifyingly absurd as well.  In some ways, this insight into the insanity of totalitarian Russia was recently replicated in the move, The Death of Stalin.  One customarily, and understandably, dwells upon the horror of Stalin and his bloody epoch.  The movie, The Dean of Stalin, seems to reverse the equation:  asking the audience to note how, given enough historical distance or philosophical perspective, even terror can prove to be ridiculous.  For only terror could have produced the circumstances in which Stalin's heirs prevented Stalin from getting immediate medical attention, or produced such intertwined sycophantic ravings and cynical power plays.

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