To Build a CastleMy Life as a Dissenter
Alarm and Hope
Before the Revolution, there was Russian literature. Since the Revolution, except for an early and brief period when the good writers were as optimistic as the bad, there has been, for the most part, the literature of Russian dissidence. Its qualities and categories are hard to define, but lately the sheer output has become difficult to keep up with even for the expert, while the layman must simply resign himself to leaving the most of it unread—a harsh fact, when you consider that there is hardly any such thing as a dissident book which is not written at the risk of its author’s neck.
Vladimir Bukovsky is the bravest of the brave, but if his book told us nothing new there would be a good case for leaving it to one side. Luckily the fancy title is no guide to the book’s true worth, which is considerable. To Build a Castle takes an assured place alongside such volumes as Evgenia Ginzburg’s Journey Into the Whirlwind or Anatoly Marchenko’s My Testimony. It is one more, and this time a very recent, chapter in the terrifying story—by now several generations long—of what Soviet political repression actually feels like to the people it happens to.
In addition to the inside knowledge he provides, Bukovsky has a capacity for moral reflection that almost lifts his work to the level occupied, in their different ways, by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn. If, finally, we decide that he doesn’t quite reach that altitude, it might have something to do with the limitations of his virtues. There is something of the star soloist about Bukovsky. He can speak for himself and he can speak for a principle, but in speaking for ordinary people he sometimes seems to lack the capacity for self-forgetfulness.
Perhaps he is just young. Bukovsky was born in 1942, which makes him about three years younger than the present reviewer, to whom the worst thing that has ever happened has been a sinus operation. Bukovsky was first arrested for taking part in protests when he was still in high school and has spent most of his adult life in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, the latter being specifically designed to give their victims an even worse time than the former. He has dared the Soviet authorities to do their worst and they have done it. In some ways he is so grown up that the ordinary Western reader loses touch with him. In other ways he has had no life at all. It is not surprising that there is something overbearing about his ego. Nothing else but concentrated, unrelenting selfhood could have sustained him.
The literary result, however, is an intensified version of the same tone projected by Solzhenitsyn even at his most sympathetically generous—you feel that an extreme experience has lifted the man talking to you on to a higher plane and left you on a lower one. Only Nadezhda Mandelstam can take us all the …