Friday, 16 September 2011

Red Plenty - Francis Spufford

Read in Lisboa and London. September 2011.

I first heard about this book on the glorious Little Atoms podcast back in January of this year and it sounded absolutely fascinating. I've been trying to get my hands on it for some months now. Unfortunately there don't seem to be enough copies to go round the London libraries consortium and I've always found every copy on loan or reserved upon checking the catalogue . Finally, after several months of avoiding the temptation,  I bit the bullet and handed over some real money for a copy.

 Would it live up to the hype that I had generated for it in my own head with my brain? Would I regret my emotional and financial investment? Was I really emotionally invested in a book that I heard  about on a podcast?

Well, let's begin by stating the obvious; it is a strange book. It appears to be series of  short stories linked by the idea of the soviet planned economy. Or is it a novel in which the central character is the idea of the soviet planned economy? To be frank I'm not quite sure what it is, and I suppose part of the enjoyment is following where the book leads, unsure if you are heading down a literary blind alley or not.

The structure is episodic and generally chronological. Each chapter gives us a new glimpse into this strange world from a totally different angle than the last. One moment we are accompanying Nikita Krushchev on the maiden transatlantic flight  of a  prototype Tupolev plane, the next we are living it up with Graduate students in Akademgorodok, the leafy science town in Siberia. We even get to explore locations as diverse as a labour ward (in which the women have the joy of childbirth without painkillers) and inside of the lungs cells of a Russian computer scientist!

The structure can be slightly hard work, certainly to the extent that each chapter is so well written that you are sad to leave the characters behind and head somewhere different. But the book is so ambitious in its scope that this is probably just a side effect of trying to embrace such a large subject within less than 500 pages.

Red Plenty is notable for its copious end notes and bibliography, betraying the fact that it can't really be described as a novel in the traditional sense. So much of what you are reading is straight out of reality or is reality twisted to fit within the chapter. The names may have been changed but the events are true (but maybe not is the right order).

I'm aware that I haven't really been able to say what the book is about. Well, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go into that much depth so I should probably cut to the chase and give a verdict.

As a read it is pretty darn good, Spufford has a masterful control of  language and he can make something that would appear to be dry seem emotionally rich and poetic. The highlights for me were the sections within the lung cells. the enzymes came alive so much that I was sure I could feel my own cells twitching and abundant with activity. That isn't to say that the history isn't good, it is but I liked the book best when it was being strange and unpredictable.

Probably the most entertaining book about central planning ever. Although it is the only book about central planning that I have ever read so I have no frame of reference.

No comments: