The Innocent

Written by David Szalay

The novel is set in Soviet Russia and begins in 1972, but then quickly jumps back to the central moment of the book when the main character Aleksandr, an MGB (forerunner of the KGB) major goes to visit a brain-damaged man named Yudin. His purpose is to ascertain whether he can be questioned by the state regarding his past activities or thoughts. The novel is quite disjointed, and at times it is hard to be sure where we are exactly. It seems to be mostly in 1972; the writer uses key historical events such as the Munich Olympics to anchor us there. The structure is probably deliberate as it follows the meanderings of Aleksandr`s memories of his past and the effects his actions, particularly regarding the Yudin case, had upon his life and the lives of others. There is no escape from politics in this Russia, and in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, grounds can always be found to question someone’s loyalty to the state.

The novel is very atmospheric in this sense and is particularly good at showing the reactions of the ordinary citizen to events such as the famous Fischer–Spassky chess match, but I found myself increasingly frustrated by the nebulous nature of the story. There are powerful moments but somehow it didn’t involve the reader. It is probably the whole point; the nature of memory as the man looks over important moments in his life, the lack of directness reflecting the society at the time where people were afraid to speak too unambiguously, but it is the indistinct quality of the book that I found quite off-putting. I’m sure many will disagree, however.