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The Black Maria Paperback – May 31, 2014
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I don't recall being quite as thoroughly chilled by Solzhenitsyn's works as I was with Rupert Colley's The Black Maria. Passion, loyalty, love, betrayal, and death play out between a small cast of finely crafted characters within a page-turning plotline, as they always do in Colley's historical fiction."
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For me, it is impossible not to empathize with Maria, caught up in a system where denunciation is considered moral and patriotic: inform for self-preservation. Maria's actions, designed for her survival, are self-serving and immoral but understandable. We see her as a whole person. We see fear, mind-numbness, indoctrination, and betrayal as a moral norm. This is the story of one person's survival wrapped in the mind destroying Soviet system. The novel raises the larger question: what do 'good' people do in the face of government tyranny -- what would you do? Probably Maria is like most of us if we were forced to live in such a society.
Don't get me wrong. This is a disquieting, well-told tale in which the author delves deeply and effectively into the minds of his characters. Is it entertaining? Yes. You'll be glad you read this novel. Reviewed by the author of The Children's Story, About Good and Evil.
Perhaps this is because 1) Solzhenitsyn came to understand the evil of the system not as a civilian but as a respected military man before he was arrested and sent to a labor camp for criticizing, in a private letter, Stalin's handling of World War II; and 2) his most powerful works deal with imprisonment: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In the First Circle, The Gulag Archipelago, for example.
Colley's protagonist, Maria Radekovna, on the other hand, is a civilian who is relatively free (although arrest and imprisonment are constant threats) and perhaps that is why I found her to be a more relatable character than many of those found in Solzhenitsyn's great works.
When her story begins, the reader finds Maria tightly bound by the tentacles of the secret police. Her brother Victor, having returned from a labor camp an emotional vegetable, is the reason she has been forced into a job that requires her to "out" someone every two weeks, someone who is (or isn't -- it really doesn't matter) being every so slightly disloyal to the State. Victor's sad life would be over if Maria didn't keep making her twice-monthly reports against her fellow-citizens, most of whom haven't uttered a disloyal syllable. Their lives for her brother's.
Maria is also trapped in a loveless marriage with an insipid Party official because he knows something about her history. And in this real-life dystopia items in one's past that would be considered inconsequential from a western perspective could be absolutely devastating for those who were existing in this time and place.
On the horizon of Maria's oppressive world there suddenly appears a handsome, independently-minded artist who is, for the moment, enjoying state-sponsored patronage only because Stalin can see the propaganda value in art -- "The artist is the engineer of the soul."
Passion, loyalty, love, betrayal, and death play out between a small cast of finely crafted characters within a page-turning plotline, as they always do in Colley's historical fiction. But this book kept me turning (er, clicking) the pages a bit faster than the others. Perhaps this has something to do with the book's construction or else because The Black Maria takes place in Moscow, in the heart of Soviet Russia (as opposed to a satellite Iron Curtain country like Hungary, the setting of Colley's My Brother, the Enemy). Moscow in the 1930's was Communism exactly as Stalin desired it to be and this book gives a close-up view of the constant terror Muscovites were forced to endure as Stalin's secret police waged their ideological war on their own people via purge after endless purge, denunciation after endless denunciation.
Colley, a former librarian, wrote The Black Maria after wading through multiple accounts of those who had witnessed the Soviet terror. It shows. He even -- quite chillingly -- is able to get into the mindset of those orchestrating this "war", phrasing it like this:
"We are fighting a war, and our enemy is an internal one, one that doesn't wear a uniform. We must always be vigilant; we can't afford to spare the rod, not until our work is done.'
They were, most unfortunately, true to their aims and the way in which Colley captures this piece of history will stay with the reader perhaps longer than they wish it to.
The book opens in 1992. The eponymous Maria, now an old woman, is living out her declining years in a stifling Moscow apartment with only a taciturn maid and her memories for company. Neither is a source of much comfort to her. The arrival from Britain of her grandson, whom she has never previously met, awakens in Maria a desire to, finally, recount the story of her life. It is a terrifying and tragic tale of the realities of life under Stalin's brutal regime. Colley is unflinching in his depiction of the depravity that can be borne out of desperate circumstances, and in doing so he examines the depths to which we are capable of descending when faced with little other choice.
This novel is hard-hitting, dark and, at times, unpalatable. It is also honest. Because although Maria's past deeds may have blackened her soul, the reader does not despise her. We are left feeling that she is not, in fact, the `black' Maria - she is, like us all, a curious shade of grey.
This is, in my opinion, Rupert Colley's best novel yet.