By Natasha Pulley
I really like Natasha Pulley, but man, it feels like she is in a challenge to make her readers root for the most problematic character possible. I had some serious issues with her previous book The Kingdoms, but I think she might have outdone herself this time. (Unlike her other books, The Half Life of Valery K doesn’t include any magical realism and is even based on real events, which makes it worse, quite frankly.)
The protagonist, the titular Valery K, is a radiation scientist in Russia in the 1960s, which simply can’t be anything but problematic given the field of study and time period. When the novel starts, Valery has been in a Siberian work camp for 6 years, and has only survived that long due to some lucky circumstances. The description of the work camp is devastating, especially given how well researched it seems to be. Valery has every expectation of starving to death in the following year when he is released and brought to ‘City 40’ to help study the effects of radiation on the general ecosystem. City 40 is kept in deep secrecy to hide it from the western countries (the US in particular), and once in the city, no one leaves.
Valery quickly befriends the head KGB officer that holds them all there, another strangely sympathetic but deeply problematic character. It is a much more comfortable imprisonment than the work camps, so Valery is content until he discovers deeper secrets that even his very compromised morals cannot accept.
And that gets to the crux of the book – it is all about the evils that people have to accept to survive in impossible situations. And also when people reach a breaking point where they can’t accept any more, and fight back, often becoming evil in their own opposing way. This obviously makes for a very difficult read, and I think I’ll be wrestling with the questions this book raises for a while.
I haven’t read much about the Soviet Union, so this book more than any other I’ve read gave me insight into what the Soviet communist government was trying to achieve as an ideal and some of the ways it failed so badly in practice. Anti-west Soviet propaganda is a pervasive background throughout the novel, with most characters living in constant fear of US bombing, especially after Hiroshima. Soviet citizens would ascribe most unexplained explosions to US bombing, and I realized that I had no idea if the United States had bombed the USSR in the 50s and 60s, and that I likely wouldn’t know.
Though the US is somewhat more sophisticated in how it influences its citizens,* it made me really interrogate the degree to which I’ve bought into western propaganda (the Soviet characters are shocked by the strict gender roles imposed in western cultures, for instance). Awareness is all well and good, but there’s no clear answer for how individual citizens can combat this ideological warfare, which left me feeling a little hopeless about the state of humanity in general.
*I was reminded of a joke I’d heard a while ago: A Russian and an American get on a plane in Moscow and get to talking. The Russian says he works for the Kremlin and he’s on his way to go learn American propaganda techniques.
“What American propaganda techniques?” asks the American. “Exactly,” the Russian replies.