The Snow Violin – Book Review
Author: Michel Louyot, trans. Catherine Cauvin-Higgins
Publisher: Leaky Boots Press, www.leakyboot.com
Copyright: 2014, ISBN: 1909849105
Cover: Yu Jing
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, October 9, 2014
Summary: Fictionalized stream of thought from Soviet spy Vladimir Ippolitovich Vetrov on the last night of his life in a cell in the company of a cockroach.
This short book (one-hundred and six pages) sort of leaves you stunned. Into the first couple of pages you start asking yourself why you are reading it. Before you know it, you are done. An experience that qualifies as an event. The stun element arises from a bit of literary artfulness that is flawlessly executed.
There is a category of fiction I call allegorical philosophizing. In reading THE SNOW VIOLIN, for reasons subjective, Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE comes to mind. This book also evokes a whole list of real existentialist philosophers from Kierkegaard to Dostoyevsky—especially Dostoyevsky and his CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. THE SNOW VIOLIN is not existentialist in outlook. Instead, it is intended as a peek at the realism of an intelligent man faced with the consequences of acts he committed leading to his imprisonment and pending execution.
The book is based upon the real life and death of KBG agent Vladimir Ippolitovich Vetrov. Chronicled in Kostin and Raynaud’s FAREWELL: THE GREATEST SPY STORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (reviewed here in June 2014 ), Louyot’s SNOW VIOLIN takes up where FAREWELL left off. You do not need to know any facts about Vetrov to appreciate Louyot’s book. In fact, it may be more enjoyable reading not to be bothered by Vetrov’s history. Bothered by the facts, in other words.
THE SNOW VIOLIN intermittently burps background on why Vetrov is sitting in a Soviet prison awaiting death. We learn of his murder and attempted murder charge and of his unprecedented sieve-like leaking of Soviet secrets to the French. All true stuff. If you have read FAREWELL or know the real history of Vetrov, the facts or as close to the facts you can get, will likely color how you feel about THE SNOW VIOLIN. The book however requires a broader appreciation of real life, especially of the voice in the head that makes us believe we have both a conscience and a consciousness. It is this broader perspective that the book undertakes with sufficient drama to keep the reader reading.
Louyot sets out his premise early. He streams the consciousness of Vetrov with a devil’s advocate voice that forces the stream into an examination of conscience. As we encounter Vetrov setting in his cell in Soviet Union ca. 1985, hearing the sounds of incarceration, he poses the central question of the narrative:
“What distinguishes warders from inmates, political prisoners from petty criminals? Maybe this is what makes us different from the Nazis. In Russia everything is vague and ill-defined, nobody knows who does what, roles are interchangeable, everyone spends their life talking and acting contrary to what they think: why would I have been an exception?”
Michel Louyout, THE SNOW VIOLIN, PAGE 13
The answers Vetrov provides to these questions take up the rest of this book. As we said, the allegorical philosophizing flows on two levels. There is Vetrov the man and Vetrov the embodiment of everyman.
The tension in the narrative starts when, after Vetrov exonerates his wife Svetlana for his criminal activity. That activity included the attempted murder of his girlfriend Ludmila, the murder of the good Samaritan who attempted to intervene on Ludmila’s behalf, and his betrayal of his employer, the Soviet Union. He takes full responsibility for his crimes and his conduct. He says the reason for his troubles was because he “was no longer willing to be the one you [the Soviet system] wanted me to be. . .”
To be his real-self Vetrov says he was required to cast off the definitions of himself imposed by others. And this is the journey of THE SNOW VIOLIN. However, in the end, he comes back to his original definition of himself. A Russian. It is an engrossing and fascinating journey.
THE SNOW VIOLIN is recommended reading.