We recently celebrated the launch of John Tesarsch’s brilliant third novel, Dinner with the Dissidents, where Lee Kofman shared some of her insights into this literary thriller, set in the tumultuous times of 1970s Moscow.
Dinner with the Dissidents tackles themes close to my heart. It is set in Soviet Russia, the place of my birth, and tells the story of its dissidents, particularly of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer whom I admire. But then, I rarely enjoy historical novels, especially novels about places I know well and which are written by outsiders. The reasons I think Dinner with the Dissidents is a remarkable work actually have little to do with my background and everything to do with the literary vision of this book.
‘The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,’ reads Solzhenitsyn’s possibly most famous quote. John’s novel, whether intentionally or not, is a fine dramatisation of this wisdom. The battleline in the heart of Leonid, the protagonist, has been active for decades by the time we first meet him as an elderly public servant in Canberra, still haunted by his past life in Moscow. An aspiring writer in his youth, and seduced by the promise of being published, Leonid became an instrument of the Soviet regime, as many real-life writers did in those times.
Leonid’s task was to infiltrate the secretive dissident milieu revolving around Solzhenitsyn, to spy on the writer as he was finishing his most important work, The Gulag Archipelago; the book that would help to eliminate any remaining illusions in the West about the Soviet regime. The book that would resonate so profoundly with that regime’s countless victims that they’d sometimes confuse their own experiences with Solzhenitsyn’s stories. The book that would place its author in grave danger, and set Leonid on a lifelong search for atonement.
Dinner with the Dissidents is a morally serious work. Yet it is also wise enough to not always take itself seriously. The liberal sprinkling of humour throughout its pages reminds me of works by my favourite Russian authors − Bulgakov, Chekhov and Gogol, all of whom considered humour to be one of the highest manifestations of wisdom.
It might sound contrived that I’m talking about John’s novel in the context of Russian fiction. But see, the reason I’m normally ambivalent about historical novels set in places foreign to their authors is because it’s easy to get them wrong. I’m not talking about the facts, but about the authors’ ability, or not, to strike the right psychological and atmospheric tone particular to each place and time. Without this tone, I believe, historical fiction lacks value. And it’s an artistic task damn difficult to master. Not for John, though.
Dinner with the Dissidents captures insightfully various Soviet paradoxes. The drabness and the palatial grandeur of Moscow; the lack of physical privacy and the intensely private minds of the citizens; the cruelty and the intimacy of the state’s relationship with its informers; the generosity and petty rivalries among dissidents. Solzhenitsyn himself doesn’t get spared in the novel, and rightly so. His direct speech sways between the illuminating and the irritating, revealing the incredibly complex personality of this courageous man and zealous wannabe-prophet. In one of my favourite passages in the novel, Andrei Sakharov, another famous dissident, tells Solzhenitsyn: ‘You are a great novelist precisely because you understand the truth of the human heart. Why can’t you be as forgiving of us as you are of your characters?’
As much as Dinner with the Dissidents is embedded within the Soviet zeitgeist, though, it also, to paraphrase Whitman, contains multitudes. What makes this novel truly unforgettable is the beauty of its language, and its thematic richness. It is a book as much about art as it is about politics. And it engages with the kind of universal questions philosophers have debated for centuries − questions around the nature of evil, the freedom (or not) of choice, and the ability (or not) of an individual to make a difference.
But good news: John is no Plato or Schopenhauer. His work won’t put you to sleep, this I guarantee. He has the gift of translating lofty dilemmas into a compelling personal story woven into a racy narrative that twists and turns, entices and bewilders in labyrinthine fashion. As you read Dinner with the Dissidents you’re in a reading heaven, because your intellectual faculties are continuously stimulated, but at the same time you enjoy the guilty pleasure of reading an action-packed book without the guilt.