“The Noise of Time” by British awardwinning author Julian Barnes is a fictionalized retelling of the persecuted Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s life.

Shostakovich came of age under Stalin and in 1936 had written an acclaimed opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” The opera had gained praise abroad as well as in Russia, but one night it was performed perhaps a little too loudly, when Stalin happened to be in
the audience.

After that, everything changed. A Pravda editorial, thought to be written by Stalin himself, appeared almost immediately. The review, titled “Muddle Not Music,” said that a composer “was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies.” Suddenly Shostakovich was in trouble with the Soviet regime.

To compound his problems, Shostakovich was not a Party member. At a time when people were being rounded up and shot for the least suspicion of treachery, Shostakovich believed he was a dead man. He had a wife and young daughter to protect, so he started spending his nights, fully dressed, smoking and waiting at the elevator. When the police came, he was not going to be dragged off in his pajamas in front of them. He did get called in for an interrogation, but the police let him go on the condition that he return in 48 hours. The following Monday morning he dressed and took a bus, making sure he was punctual. “He was always punctual, and would go to his death being punctual.” When he got there he found he was not expected; his interrogator had been arrested.

And so Shostakovich survived under Stalin. He refused to join a party that killed. He observed, “Just to be noticed by Stalin was much more dangerous than an existence of anonymous obscurity.” Yet he was destined to be the most respected Russian composer living in Russia at that time. He loathed people like Picasso, who hailed Soviet power even though the Soviets would have forbidden his art in Russia: “He [Picasso] was free to speak the truth. Instead he sat like a rich man in Paris, painting his revolting dove of peace.”

This novel, packed with thoughtprovoking ironies, evokes a sense of the fear artists lived with under Stalin.