Commissariat of Enlightenment

Commissariat of Enlightenment

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by Ken Kalfus
     
 

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Russia, 1910. Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a remote railway station. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. They have been joined by a film company whose cinematographer, Nikolai Gribshin, is capturing the extraordinary scene and learning how

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Overview

Russia, 1910. Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a remote railway station. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. They have been joined by a film company whose cinematographer, Nikolai Gribshin, is capturing the extraordinary scene and learning how to wield his camera as a political tool. At this historic moment he comes across two men — the scientist, Professor Vorobev, and the revolutionist, Joseph Stalin — who have radical, mysterious plans for the future. Soon they will accompany him on a long, cold march through an era of brutality and absurdity. The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a mesmerizing novel of ideas that brilliantly links the tragedy and comedy of the Russian Revolution with the global empire of images that occupies our imaginations today.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Franzen
“Kalfus is an ironist in the best late-modern Central European style: wry, humane, precise, and beautifully smitten with ideas.”
Esquire
“Glitteringly original. . . . An intricate, harrowing, and, yes, dangerous first novel that sets out to capture the dawn of the 20th century in Bolshevik Russia.”
London Times
“Kalfus’s book is absorbing, intelligent, witty and wry...A fable that tells the story of the 20th century.”
Andrea Barrett
“Inventive, unusual, humorous, ... deeply intelligent, The Commissariat of Enlightenment beautifully illuminates the hazardous powers of image, icon, and relic.”
The New Yorker
For Comrade Astapov of the Agitprop Section of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the filmmaker protagonist of this début novel, "life's struggle was not to control events, but the way in which they were remembered." His story begins in 1910, at the press-besieged deathbed of Tolstoy, where his talent for manipulating film to falsify events earns the notice of Stalin. Astapov's distortions are the perfect metaphor for Kalfus's own special effects: Stalin, of course, wasn't there when Tolstoy died. Preoccupied with truth, media, history, and politics, this novel shows its mechanisms proudly. Its stunning conclusion is a postmortem voice-over from the embalmed mind of Lenin, who, still conscious, is able to survey Russia's future, and is eternally irritated by the abuses of his successor.
Beth Kephart
This first novel by the acclaimed short-story writer opens with the dying of Leo Tolstoy in Astapovo, a railway station located somewhere in Russia. Tolstoy is iconic, a giant of a man, and reporters and camera crews have descended upon the peasant town to record the transitional moment. It is the world's first true media circus, the dawning of the age of celebrity, and among those who bear witness to the stupefying scene are an embalmer named Professor Vorobev and a young, hard-hearted cinematographer named Nikolai Gribshin. Gribshin will use his talent for propaganda to promote the suspect ambitions of Stalin, and Vorobev will be engaged in a macabre plot to embalm Lenin's body. Along the way, real events and characters from history are reinvented by Kalfus' dervish imagination. There are no cuddly characters in this novel of ideas�no scenes of affection, hardly a trace of tenderness. What there is instead is Kalfus' brand of black humor, his fascination with those turning points in history that foretell the future.
Publishers Weekly
Kalfus's two well-received short story collections (Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies) set a high standard for his first novel, a sweeping, quasihistorical fiction spanning two tumultuous decades in Russia. From the opening scenes at Leo Tolstoy's deathbed (and the surrounding media circus) to the rise of Stalin, the narrative unfolds with Kalfus's signature mix of carefully researched history, subtle social commentary and leaping, imaginative storytelling. Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. This knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from postrevolution chaos toward the Soviet state and its bureaucracies, one of which is the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the powerful agency in charge of propaganda. The cinematographer's fate merges with that of Comrade Astapov, director of the massive Red agitprop campaign. Those who resist the commissariat include a church congregation that refuses to give up its faith, an experimental theater director, and a resilient young woman who makes an abstract, pornographic film in the name of sexual education for women. Unforgettable re-creations of embalmer and scientist Vladimir Vorobev (who mummified Lenin), Joseph Stalin and Countess Tolstoy anchor the plethora of plot developments, which involve many minor-and major-characters with double identities and secret agendas that demand patience and close attention from the reader. Told in supple, witty and gritty prose, the story exhibits all the vigorous intelligence and vision readers have come to expect from Kalfus. (Feb. 1) Forecast: Kalfus has a following among young literati, and this novel should benefit from extensive review coverage. Two-city author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An inventive first novel briskly reimagines 20th-century Russian history. The story�s first half (titled "Pre-") is set in 1910, at the remote railway station in Astapovo where Count Leo Tolstoy, having fled his estate, lies dying. The world beats a path to Astapovo. Young cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin works with the "Path� fr�res" news service, which hopes to film the revered writer�s final hours. A Dr. Strangelovian scientist, Professor Vorobev, offers to apply to the moribund Count his newly perfected technique for preserving "the qualities of the vital force in a dead animal"�as evidenced by the stuffed rat Vorobev carries everywhere with him. And, in the wake of the failed 1905 Revolution, comrades Lenin and Stalin scheme to share in the world attention focused on Astapovo, reasoning that "in the right hands, the Count can be transformed into a revolutionary hero. . . ." The rich comedy of these early scenes is skillfully darkened in the second half (entitled "Post-"), which takes place in 1919, after WWI and the successful October Revolution have totally altered the political and economic landscape. Kalfus (stories: PU-239, 1999, etc.) now turns his attention to pseudonymous "Comrade Astapov" (whom we�ve met previously), a veteran of the European War and connoisseur of the still-developing art of cinema, whose technical knowledge is now employed by the eponymous Commissariat, a recently formed ministry entrusted with reshaping all art forms in a manner suitable for the supposedly obedient (often recalcitrant) masses. Astapov�s duties lead to an unexpected reunion with Professor Vorobev (madder than ever) and a climactic effort to "revive" the Soviet Party (so to speak) that willcast bizarre shadows over the eagerly anticipated "glorious future." A brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary. Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing he�d dreamed this up.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060501396
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
02/03/2004
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
792,777
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Commissariat of Enlightenment
A Novel

Chapter One1910

The train jolted forward so abruptly that the three passengers in the first-class coach sensed that they had been propelled much farther than a few meters from the Tula station. One of the men (Gribshin) felt as if he had been thrust from the era in which he lived. The second man (Vorobev) perceived that he had been jerked out of a manner of thought that had become complacent after years of discovery; now he was poised at the brink of revelation. The third man (Khaitover), who had been resting with his eyes closed, now sprung them wide, as if he had been suddenly brought to life. The three men had not yet made each other's acquaintance.

The initial surge bunched the cars, they paused in repose as the engine strained against them, and then the couplings tensed, there was another, now-anticipated jolt, and the train pressed forward again. The station's cream-yellow bricks slid past the window, followed by railway sheds and equipment of uncertain purpose. Leafless nearby trees crossed more distant ones. Patches of white, remnants of the first snowfall, dotted the hard fields.

The third man, who after a lengthy, restless, and intermittently ruinous residence in Russia now called himself Grakham Khaitover, his name Cyrillicized into something outlandishly guttural, scarcely noticed the first man, Gribshin, who was young and Russian. Of the second man, sitting opposite him, Khaitover remarked only a faint chemical, fungal scent, indefinitely disturbing but not unpleasant. At this crucial moment — but why was it crucial? why had the fog into which he had dozed not yet cleared?— the odor seemed pregnant with a message he could not read.

The second man, Professor Vladimir Vorobev, ignored the first man as some clerk or student, destined to be banished to a green third-class car once the conductor checked his ticket. If Vorobev had been told that Gribshin would someday make a revolution, he would have shrugged and replied that he was a scientist completely uninterested in politics. This practiced denial would be developed into an argument of contemptuous disinterest by the time he reached Bulgaria, years later, after fleeing there with former elements of the White Army, and then modified again into one of innocent apolitical ignorance once he returned to the Ukraine at the end of the Civil War.

The revelation that had just come to Professor Vorobev had to do with the specific gravity of certain liquid substances, particularly glycerin in respect to distilled water, and then again in respect to the specific gravity of human blood. The other substance to be taken under consideration was potassium acetate, a compound typically used in fabric conditioner.

Tula's outlying settlements glided past, followed by snow-frosted small cottages, grain silos, the brown dome of a village church, and a tableau of peasants frozen in time, leaning away from their carts, against the direction of history. Professor Vorobev turned his attention toward the third man, Khaitover, who was clearly a foreigner. Khaitover was gangly and fair, with a small, yellow mustache. The professor noted the failings of his toilet: the wrinkled business suit; the light, uneven side whiskers; the scuffed shoes; the drowsy demeanor. As the train picked up speed, rocking through the countryside, the foreigner's head fell against the mud-specked window and his eyelids began to flicker.

Vorobev cleared his throat, as if in a lecture hall, and inquired:

"Sir, are you a pilgrim, or a journalist?"

Khaitover opened his eyes, but remained leaning against the window. The professor fairly glowed with the benevolence of his question. Khaitover responded in heavily accented, grammatically awry, snarly Russian.

"Do I look like a bloody pilgrim?"

"There are many pilgrims from abroad. Germany, England, America, India. Some have come on foot."

Vorobev offered Khaitover his card, obliging the foreigner, grimacing, to dig one out of his own billfold, which itself had to be excavated from an inside jacket pocket. His living dependent on more than a single occupation, Khaitover carried a variety of cards. He made a selection and gave it to the professor. He kept his shoulder jammed against the window.

The first man, who at twenty years of age was still called Gribshin, attended the exchange with vague interest. The impulsion forward had left him chiefly occupied with an inventory of the physiological effects induced by accelerated time travel: a retrograde churning of your stomach contents, a searing of your nostril hairs, a sharpening of vision that brought the landscape into almost unbearable relief. You rarely experienced these effects in ordinary life, when you traveled into the future a single moment at a time. Gribshin wondered what new world he found himself in.

Vorobev squinted through his pince-nez, studying both the English and Russian sides of Khaitover's visiting card. The professor was a squat man with a round, sweaty face onto which a glossy black mustache seemed to have been clumsily pasted.

"The Imperial. I'm not familiar with it. Is it an important publication? What class of person is likely to purchase it?"

Khaitover replied, "The newspaperless class; that is, that class of people who do not have a newspaper and are desirous of reading one."

He hardly knew more about the paper he wrote for than how much it paid by the column inch. He had been away from England a long time, barren years in which he had ceased to be a young man as he sought to pry his fortune from this impossible empire and its limitless, valueless steppes, its inaccessible forests, its untappable mineral veins; its teeming, unfished rivers, its lazy and superstitious natives — this hyperborean Congo. Or perhaps he had just been born, like today's newspaper, which had arisen from dust and telegraphic sparks in only twenty-four hours. Or he was only tired: he had just been involved in some very complicated speculative business having nothing to do with journalism.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment
A Novel
. Copyright (c) by Ken Kalfus . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Andrea Barrett
“Inventive, unusual, humorous, ... deeply intelligent, The Commissariat of Enlightenment beautifully illuminates the hazardous powers of image, icon, and relic.”
Jonathan Franzen
“Kalfus is an ironist in the best late-modern Central European style: wry, humane, precise, and beautifully smitten with ideas.”

Meet the Author

ken kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short story collections Thirst, which won the Salon Book Award, and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Date of Birth:
April 9, 1954
Place of Birth:
Bronx, New York
Education:
The New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University

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Commissariat of Enlightenment 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read 166 pages and am still waiting for what I expected to emerge. I expected more about Tolstoy, Lenin, Stalin, in short the early 1917 Russian Revolution, the romantic overthrow and lynching of the royal family. So far nothing. Do I keep reading and hope that it gets deep? Do I skim? Otherwise just as it is, its a boring novel. It could take place in any other place there is nothing Russian about it, so far. The author Ken Kalfus is refreshingly fair in his first part presentation. Thank you.
Hill_Ravens More than 1 year ago
Be careful what you wish for would be a good take away from this book. While the setting is during the Russian revolution, reds vs. whites, the issues and how the issues were dealt with sound eerily familiar to things happening in the world today. Propaganda is a force which once unleashed; even the creators can fall victim to. Once a lie is told enough times it is considered to be true. A fine example of how distorted the "winners" view of history can be and the efforts which are employed to help support the "winners" view.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'd give the novel 4 and half stars if that were an option. Contrary to the opinion posted below, I did not find the book boring. I won't repeat the thumbnail descriptions given by the professional reviewers above. They are accurate and sufficient. Just wanted to say that therre is plenty of Russia in the book and plenty of contemporary America too. A good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
KEN KALFUS HAS DONE IT AGAIN. HE HAS PROVEN THAT HE IS A WRITER TO BE RECKON WITH. THIS STORY ABOUT THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION IS A PAGE TURNER WITH AN ENDING THAT MYSTIFIES.IT IS A MUST READ FOR ANYONE WHO READS.