Ken Kalfus

"The Commissariat of Enlightenment"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 03, 2003)

"Gribshin was…at the center of history. In the last eighteen months, he…had filmed a pogrom in Galicia, the Tsar's visit to Moscow, and an aeroplane flight over the Neva. It had been like sailing with Columbus…And for the cinema spectator, world events had been made immediate and tangible. History was no longer a story about the past. It was now...[seen] at the end of a shaft of electric light."

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Kolya Gribshin, a young cameraman working for the Pathe Freres Cinematography Company, arrives at the railway station in Astapovo in 1910 to cover the last days of Count Leo Tolstoy, who is dying of pneumonia in the stationmaster's house. The world and print media have gathered to record his final moments, straining the resources of this tiny town as reporters scramble for word--any word--of the events which are transpiring behind curtained windows and closed doors. Within this media circus, only Gribshin is recording the events on film, which is "the means by which man will extend the enlightenment to every remote alpine hamlet, desert encampment, and village on the tundra." Hundreds of millions of illiterate people regard Tolstoy as a hero, who, despite his aristocratic background, recognizes their powerlessness and empathizes with it.

Read excerptGribshin has found lodgings in the countryside, rather than the town, staying with peasants and observing their desperate plight. Current events, even the death of the Count, are less important to them than the next meal and their 13-year-old daughter's pregnancy. As Gribshin travels back and forth between the darkness of the unlit countryside and the artificial, arc-lit brightness of the media-mad town, the author's vivid dark/light imagery shows the contrasts between the peasants, with their immediate physical needs, and the reporters, with their need for the intangible-news they can convey to the world at large. The unedited reality of peasant life bumps hard against the reality that is depicted by the media.

Throughout Astapovo and other rural areas, revolutionary, anti-tsarist sentiments have been growing. A married couple named Ivanov (whom Kalfus identifies in his notes as the Pasternaks) is secretly making the rounds of party cadres, organizing resistance to the Tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church, and other forces which have kept the common people in the dark. But these are not the only revolutionaries who have arrived in Astapovo. A Caucasian revolutionary, later identified as Josef Stalin, is also present, observing Gribshin's every move. Like Gribshin, he sees the potential of film for "ripping away the veil of lies thrown up by language." More importantly, he recognizes that a cinematographer can present particular images and particular "incontrovertible" truths to the people in a way which will generate and mold public opinion. Though the camera never lies, it can be used to present specific points of view through the selection and manipulation of images.

Another pilgrim who has arrived for Tolstoy's deathwatch is a man whose recognition of the importance of images is most bizarre. Dr. Vladimir Vorobev has traveled with an embalmed brown rat in his suitcase, using it to show techniques of embalming which will allow a body to be preserved, lifelike, indefinitely. He is desperate to gain access to Tolstoy's deathbed so that he can persuade officials to allow him to embalm Tolstoy, preserving not only his image but his reality -- "the uncorrupted body of the incorruptible count," an offer which is refused.

Part II takes place in 1919, nine years later, following the horrors of The Great War, the Bolshevik revolution, and civil war. Gribshin is now Comrade Astapov, working for the Commissariat of Enlightenment, to which Lenin has given the task of "conquering the Russian imagination, the only battlefield on which the Soviets can possibly win the civil war and wars to come." Here the imagery of dark and light, which Kalfus has already introduced in Part I, becomes a constant motif. In one scene Comrade Astapov and his troops arrive to bring under control the rebellious, illiterate peasants seeking refuge at a monastery. When Astapov enters the dark church, some icons inside catch the moonlight and reflect it, paralleling the hope which the peasants find in religion, often the only hope in their lives. These iconic images conflict with the images important to Astapov and the Commissariat of Enlightenment, and his response is chilling.

Gribshin and Josef Stalin, through the Commissariat, soon exercise total control over the visual image, governing plays produced in the theater, censoring film and its production, and even planning cities to reflect "coded commands" through the layout of streets and width of sidewalks. Eventually, the Commissariat begins to experiment with changing history itself by inserting fictional elements into staged reenactments of real events, the films of which may supplant reality. Agitational propaganda (agit-prop) thrives. The Commissariat's ultimate image-control occurs in 1924, when the strange Dr. Vorobev is brought to Moscow to attend the dying Lenin, an event which allows him to fulfill his dream of preserving flesh "uncorrupted," while allowing the state to display publicly a man who never "dies."

The Commissariat of Enlightenment is novel of ideas in which the theme is so clear and so fully developed that all other aspects of the novel are subordinated to it. Every character and every event is clearly introduced to advance the author's purpose and expand his observations regarding our reliance on images as truth. This creates a very tight story which has no loose ends or irrelevancies, but it also leads to the creation of characters who are used for a purpose, rather than fully developed in their own right. Gribshin, through whom we view what is happening throughout the novel, is more important for his observations than for his personality or personal conflicts, and when he agrees to work for Stalin in Part I, the reader is not sure exactly why he does this or why Stalin has made such an impression on him. In Part II, he has become a cog in the apparatus of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, rather than a thinking human, quite different from the character in Part I, whose enthusiasm for his job and its potential is obvious. Here he could be any man, with any name -- and though that may be Kalfus's point, it is difficult to stick with the point of view of a man who seems to be an automaton.

Kalfus's talents are legion, and his keen eye for detail and his ability to interrelate numerous plot elements will keep the reader thoroughly engaged. The imagery of black and white photography as the basis of his symbolism of darkness and light helps to keep the theme of reality vs. perceived truth uppermost in the reader's mind. His sympathetic depiction of religion as much more than the opiate of the peasant masses imparts a warmth and empathy needed to balance the calculated actions of the Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Kalfus has dared to think big in his debut novel, and the reader cannot help but pause at his warning: "Even in western countries, where the written word had reigned for centuries, the bourgeois eye was increasingly overwhelmed by visual representations unhinged from language….[The] West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate associations forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible."

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About the Author:

Ken KalfusKen Kalfus was born in New York and has lived in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade, and Moscow. He is the author of the short story collections Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, both of which were New York Times Notable Books. A finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and a winner of the Salon Book Award and the Pushcart Prize, he has written for Harper's, Bomb, the North American Review, and the Voice Literary Supplement. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014