Since Michael Ondaatje’s 1976 novel, Coming Through Slaughter, and Timothy Findley’s 1977 work, The Wars, historical fiction in Canada has no longer been considered a species of genre writing. Following the publication of those two works in particular, many historical novels are counted among the best of literary fiction. More recently Guy Vanderhaeghe, Emma Donoghue, Joseph Boyden, Annabel Lyon, Lawrence Hill, Jane Urquhart, Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry and Margaret Sweatman, among others, have explored historical subjects ranging from ancient Greece to the Cold War.
Herb Wyile, in his 2006 book, Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction, states that “for Canadian writers at the turn of the twenty-first century, history has indisputably become a central preoccupation.” In a sure sign of literary maturation, these historical themes are not limited to Canada. Canadian writers have long felt free to write about anything and anywhere, and they do.
First-time novelist Sean Michaels is a case in point. Us Conductors (perhaps the oddest novel title of the year) is set in the Soviet Union (St. Petersburg and Moscow) just before and after the 1917 Revolution, in New York City during the 1920s and, finally, in Stalin’s Siberian gulags and prisons for talented scientists. As a jumping off point into fiction, the book tells the real life story of Russian physicist, Lev Termen, inventor of the electronic musical instrument known as the theremin, as well as many other non-musical inventions such as the altimeter for airplanes and a proto-TV that proved useful to Soviet military and intelligence. (Intriguing connections can be seen between music and scientific invention: Marconi based his discovery of tuning, which led to radio, on the concepts of resonance and harmony in music.)
Termen gains considerable fame in the Soviet Union for his musical invention and actually plays the theremin for Lenin, who is impressed. As a result, the Soviets send Termen to the United States to spread the news of his instrument and his other inventions. The plan is for Termen to steal information in the U.S. and market his inventions to amass American dollars to help the fledgling revolutionary state. Termen is accompanied by a Soviet handler named Pash, who wears several different hats: secretary, spy, communist, entrepreneur. Pash is later replaced by two other handlers, both named Karl, who are quite a bit more threatening.
Meanwhile, Lev falls in love with Clara Reisenberg, a girl with “a laugh like a tumbling kite.” The image is fitting, as the relationship is marked by great heights and sudden descents. Clara, a violin player with a sore arm, evolves into a skilled theremin player. Playing the theremin involves moving one’s hands in the air before two antennas and apparently few players could master the instrument.
Clara and Lev become minor celebrities in a world that includes Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Jascha Heifetz and numerous others. Lev leads the much younger Clara through a whirlwind courtship in the jazz clubs of Manhattan, jammed with patrons doing the Charleston and the foxtrot, and guzzling prohibition gin. But it seems the relationship is doomed. When Lev asks Clara to marry him, she appears to dissolve into thin air.
Nevertheless, Lev never gives up hope that Clara will return to him and even carries that dream back to the Soviet Union when he runs into unsolvable financial problems in the U.S. and is called back to Moscow by his masters. By this time it is 1938 and the Stalinist madness is riding high, but Lev, a true believer in the ideals of the revolution, barely questions the fact that he is treated like a prisoner on his return journey by ship.
On arrival home, Lev, who has been spying for the Soviets in America, is arrested as a spy for the U.S., in a classic case of Stalinist paranoid double-think. He is ultimately sent to a gulag in the far east of the Soviet Union and the novel takes on a far darker tone. Michaels is particularly adept at showing the suffering of the prisoners at this hell on Earth, with its bitter cold, constant threat of starvation and its mood of terror. Eventually, Lev’s scientific skills are noticed and he ends up back in Moscow, in a more comfortable prison, where he is expected to develop new inventions for Soviet intelligence.
During this period he has several meetings with Beria, the head of the secret police under Stalin. These sections are written with skill—the meetings feel utterly chilling. Lev is ordered by Beria to perfect a remote listening device, which he does. In actual fact, this bug was concealed in a wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States and given as a gift to the American ambassador. For seven years, until 1952, the Soviets heard every confidential conversation in the ambassador’s office. Beria even used the device to eavesdrop on “the man in all the portraits,” Stalin himself.
In Lev Termen, Sean Michaels has given us a fully realized main character. Lev’s shock at being arrested (“What have I done?”) is palpable. As for the image drawn of the Soviet Union in that period, seldom has writing so clearly replicated the fear and paranoia of a totalitarian state.
Numerous minor characters, especially Pash (“a manic-depressive spy”) and the horrifying Beria, also have the feel of genuine life. Clara, on the other hand, appears somewhat distant and hazy. For this reader it was difficult to connect with Lev’s great love and impossible to feel the justification for his profound, lifelong loyalty. But, of course, love too can be a kind of madness.
One minor flaw in the novel is Lev’s interest in martial arts, which feels somewhat contrived and unnecessary. On the other hand, Michaels has a fine way with language, especially the use of colour as metaphor: horses in “the colours of pecans and walnuts”; and a diner in Manhattan with walls of “an overripe lime green, the tiles a weak milky blue”, where “cooking oil hung like a fine mist in the air.”
Michaels, who has significant experience in music, founded one of the earliest downloadable music blogs on the internet, Said the Gramophone, but this is his first foray into fiction. It stands as an excellent first novel and proof, once again, that history really is nothing but stories.