Even though I no longer study History, I can definitely say that my favorite period to study was the Cold War. If I had to narrow it down, my favorite historical incident would be the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Most people have never heard of it, but the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the most significant historical moments. But we’ll talk about that later in another blog post.
Why bring up the Cold War? Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time is based on an ingenious composer of music who lives throughout the reign of the Soviet Party in Russia. Although told in the third person, the narrator fluently manages to encapsulate the thoughts of the protagonist in the narrative form us literature students like to call meta-narrative.
And it gets more interesting. The protagonist, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich actually existed in the 20th century and was one of the most acclaimed composers of music. Therefore, The Noise of Time is a significant novel for the simple reason that it creates a new form of the Novel: autobiographical fiction. Working under Stalin’s iron fist, Shostakovich’s music has historical importance. It raises the question as to whether Art can be created under political tyranny.
Focusing on the novel, Barnes explores the notion of Art vs. Politics. In current debates in literary theory, many scholars are considering this to be relevant to our Contemporary Age too. Barnes not only explores what it means to produce music under the Soviet Union, but how Art is created under USA’s capitalist regime. Relentless of being democratic, the reality is the Power is Politics. The media in the United States is the eyes that follow you even into the darkest of allies. Under USA’s democracy, the Art produced is still limited to what Power wants or dictates as “correct”. Therefore, what makes USA different to USSR is what Barnes is questioning.
Truth is, Art does have Power. Yet, does it have enough Power to override Politics? As a writer myself, I know that the answer is yes. Art, whatever form of it, has more Power than we give it credit. It only takes the writer, the artist, or the composer to rise above the confinements of whatever political system they find themselves in and release that Power. Under the Soviet Union, that would result in becoming a martyr. Under capitalism, that would result in whatever capitalism wants to twist it into. Good or bad, your name could easily become tarnished and yet your Art speaks for itself which is enough to be prideful of. What Shostakovich does is create “music” that is still pleasing for himself yet not his true work of Art since individualism and formalism were considered against the Party. Throughout the novel, Shostakovich (a huge over-thinker) is constantly telling himself he should’ve tried more, his music was not a true reflection of his capabilities, and that his work was not real Art. Without the political freedom, who would blame Shostakovich for releasing music that was good enough for the ear of the Party?
And yet again, many questions are raised here. Can Shostakovich’s music echo throughout the noise of time? As future descendants, can we hear his music and understand what it meant to create Art under tyranny? This is the aim of the novel: to make readers understand Art’s significance in every day and age. Art, not only has Power, but it grounds mankind to its simplest form: humanity and morality. Art, again whatever form, is what makes mankind civilized. The moment we stop learning about Art, Literature or Music, we will lose touch with our history, our culture, and our humanity. Art teaches us something that nothing else can teach us.
Therefore, with the Party’s limitations, Art is being manipulated, twisted, distorted, to reflect the intentions of the Party. Or rather, Politics in general. It is a shame to turn Art into an ugly monster. If we had to broaden our horizons, the same can be applied to anything in our lives. Our lives are dictated by those in Power therefore we are not truly free. Complete freedom is either anarchy or utopia. The latter does not exist. The former could easily exist. This is why we must have political systems: human beings are not capable of not corrupting their creations.
The major players within the novel are irony and sarcasm. There are moments where you’ll laugh. Moments where you’ll pity Shostakovich. And moments where you’d be scared shitless just like him. Throughout the novel, he was only a shadow of a man, scurrying away from the light, trying to stay hidden away from the eyes. And yet by allowing him to live, they were killing him. He knew his life should’ve ended early on to save him from torture yet the torture was allowing him to live. Shostakovich is the anti-hero. He loathes himself, lives in self-pity, feels guilty for succumbing to Power. Sidenote: I love depressing novels. Read this one.
We need to read more books like these. Here’s a few reviews to further interest you into reading The Noise of Time.