About halfway through this novel, we find ourselves at the head of a queue for cigarettes in the no-horse town of Chernaya (or “black-waters”). It’s , essentially a penal colony. There are two other queues, for bread and kerosene, but, as the novel puts it: “Right now the third queue, for cigarettes, is the most interesting since the cigarettes are there.” Anyway, Rodion – a young, self-educated man who’s ended up in Chernaya for innocently making the Communist party look ridiculous by, among other things, quoting from a year-old issue of Pravda – hands over his money, which the clerk just sweeps up and says “Next” without handing over the goods. And why should he? “The counter-revolution,” as someone else in the queue explains, “has no right to them.”
Elsewhere, a friend tries to look on the bright side; the sun is shining.
“Remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.”
“And thought?” asked Rodion. “Thought?”
“Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?”
“Midnight’s where we have to live then,” said Rodion with an odd elation.
Victor Serge certainly knew about living in the century’s midnight. In the mid-30s, in the grip of Stalin and Hitler, a significant chunk of the world was not allowed to think freely. Serge, although a committed revolutionary and admirer of Trotsky, managed, by my reckoning, to live slightly less than one-fifth of his life neither in prison or exile; his death in 1947 of a heart attack in the back of a taxi in Mexico is considered by some to have been an assassination. He had enraged Stalin, and although much of his writing was not published until after his death, this novel did come out in 1939, when Stalin came down on anything that was not the outrageous praise expected from the citizenry – and Midnight in the Century is very much less than that. It’s an insider’s view of life in the Soviet Union: the constant (and usually justified) fear of arrest; the networks of corruption and corrupt allegiances; what it’s like to have everything in your life gone through with a fine-toothed comb by the secret police. One character is sent to London, Paris and Berlin to see how the west makes tractors. In Paris he finds a copy of Trotsky’s opposition newspaper and in a panic conceals it in a semi-pornographic magazine. A couple of days later, he tears it up and flushes it down a train toilet, but his belongings have already been searched, and a cold welcome awaits him when he returns home.
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