Fear is the second novel in the Anatoli Rybakov’s “Arbat” trilogy, and after reading more than 1,200 pages about these characters (Children of the Arbat is the first), I’m eager to read the third.
What demonstrates Rybakov’s brilliance as a writer is the way he creates a story that moves along briskly, compelling the reader to push on, while simultaneously making us feel like the world is grinding to a halt for every character. The reader feels trapped and suffocated while reading Fear. At every turn, we feel the Soviet system blocking off another avenue that might have enabled a character to start leading a normal life. We also come to feel, as we read, as if every conversation between every character is potentially the one that will lead to an arrest and ultimately either a prison sentence or death.
Rybakov creates characters that we come to know well, and who we come to care about. We want them to survive, to find a measure of freedom and relief from fear, and to have the luxury of imagining a long life. But throughout, we know that can’t happen in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and so part of the experience of reading the novel is trying to figure out not if, but for what, the characters will ultimately be arrested.
Rybakov adds Stalin as a character; it’s an interesting experiment that works. How can one imagine the workings of a mind like Stalin’s? Not easily, of course, but the effort is worth making. It brings out pointedly the utter lack of humanity in Stalin by showing him dealing with individuals—the manipulation, the complete lack of candor, and the clear sense that the slightest action or even movement can lead to one’s death. (At one point in the novel, Stalin orders the execution of one of his clerks because he thought the clerk was scorning the way Stalin was treating a document.)
Fear is a grim novel, and there’s not much hope in the end. Reading it in the 21st century, we know that WWII is coming, and that the Soviet world will get worse before it gets better after 1953, when Stalin dies. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling, brilliant novel.