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Book review: The secret speech

21 June 2011

The Secret SpeechThe Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The protagonist of this book is Moscow homicide detective Leo Demidov, who also featured in Tom Rob Smith‘s earlier book, Child 44. But though there is plenty of homicide in this book, there is little detecting. This is not a whodunit.

The bulk of the book is set in the period of the “Khrushchev thaw” in the Soviet Union, when, in his eponymous secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s dictatorship, the police state, and the Stalinist policy of arbitrary detention and sometimes liquidation of political dissenters.

During this period millions of political prisoners were released, and the liberalisation policy did not meet with the approval of hard-line conservatives. It was opposed particularly by some factions in the KGB, the secret police, and led to power struggles, with some trying to promote and some trying to hinder liberalisation. It is around this that the plot of the novel is built, and particulalry the fear of some KGB members that the newly-released political prisoners might seek vengeance on those who denounced and arrested them.

In the beginning the description of the setting is fairly convincing, and in many ways it reminded me of the atmosphere in South Africa 21 years ago, after F.W. de Klerk’s speech of 2 February 1990. De Klerk’s speech was not secret, but it had a similar effect on society. To some it gave hope of freedom, to others fear of vengeance.

But after the promising beginning beginning the book becomes less convincing as the author tries to move the main characters to every scene of action in the period, from the Gulag to the Hungarian Uprising. He propagates the view that the Hungarian Uprising was not spontaneous, but that it was stage-managed by a Stalinist clique in Russia to try to check Khrushchev’s reform process. I’m not sufficiently clued up on history of the period to know if this was actually the case, and perhaps some historians have propounded such a view or have found evidence for such things, but it was not something I had heard of before.

Of course that would not make Smith the first novelist to manipulate history in favour of plot, and to paint “what if?” scenarios. It’s just that in this case the main purpose seems to be to get the characters to the scene of the action, and it doesn’t come off very well.

Another bit of historical revisionism, which is even less convincing, is Smith’s use and portrayal of the Orthodox Church. The book opens with a scene clearly based on the actual demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow. Thereafter the Orthodox crucifix reappears in the book as a symbol of the search for revenge — revenge on those who denounced, arrested and sent people to the prison camps. A priest in one of the prison camps apparently acquiesces in this search for revenge and seems to believe that it is quite justified and only to be expected.

Orthodox crucifix

Far be it from me to suggest that Orthodox Christians are such super saints as to never have any thoughts of taking revenge on those who have harmed them. But Orthodox spirituality is such that to entertain such thoughts is a sin to be confessed, the encouragement of an evil passion. In all Orthodox manuals of devotion, in all Orthodox spiritual teaching, the most serious obstacle to receiving Holy Communion is enmity with others and the desire for revenge. This is an absolute incompatibility. The fact that the priest character has no qualms of conscience about this, and sees no need to excuse his behaviour, even to himself, makes him altogether unconvincing. And making the Orthodox crucifix a symbol of vengeance and the overriding desire for revenge seems utterly incongruous.

The Orthodox approach to the exaction of vengeance for past wrongs can perhaps be symbolised by what actually happened in the case of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished in the Bolshevik era. It was rebuilt in the form of a replica of the original, and so perhaps stands as a symbol, not of vengeance, but of restorative justice.

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