Do you know how soap operas are written? The general direction of the narrative is laid out by a supervising writer in a sort of novel-like, running account called the "bible" (lower-case "b" of course), from which lesser writers break down the story into scenes and dialogue. I was reminded of this about midway through this dense, tight little novel of survival in an unnamed totalitarian land. For having turned page after page, hoping to come upon a fully realized scene, or at least a patch of dialogue, I finally came to the conclusion that "The Flute Player" was less like any other novel I had ever read before than it was like the bibles of a couple of soaps that I had been allowed to peruse.
This comparison will no doubt seem more negative than I intend it to be. For I do not mean to suggest that this one is a mere soap opera of a novel -- although its muted, unemphatic recitation of events often comes across as just one damned thing after another, more or less in the manner of "As the World Turns" or "All My Children." Still, the matters that provide the substance of "The Flute Player" are far more grave than that. The questions of personal and artistic freedom with which it deals, of the survival and triumph of the human spirit, are about as important as any that fiction can treat. And almost in spite of himself, D. M. Thomas does his subject justice, for while his style is anything, but dramatic, it achieves nevertheless a great deal cumulatively. Once we have come to know the character -- Elena, Michael, Peter, Marion -- what happens to them does matter to us.
The story of this group revolves around Elena for the very good reason that it is she and she alone who manages to hold it together. Peter is a painter, and Michael and Marion are both poets. Elena is without talent or pretense to art. To them, she is something more important, for she supports them all with her affection and with her strength. When they run out of money, she goes out onto the street and sells herself to put food on the table. She sustains them with praise. She models for Peter. She memorizes the poems for Michael and Marion, so that even it their manuscripts are seized and destroyed, their works will not be lost. And when they are shipped off to prison during an endless series of repressive crackdowns, it is Elena who stands in the long line outside the prison petitioning for their release, asking at least to be allowed to see them. She serves them, in the most earthy and practical ways imaginable, as their muse. It is only through her dedicated ministrations that art, their art, survives in the hostile enviromnent of this totalitarian state.
About that state. Although it has much in common with Soviet Russia, especially during the unsettled period that included the revolution and the civil war, the land in which "The Flute Player" is set is fictitious, a sort of amalgam of all the prison-societies of the 20th century. That's why it disturbs me a little that this novel has won an award in an English "fantasy" competition. There is nothing fantastic about the circumstances that it describes. They are the daily bread of artists, writers, and citizens in general in eastern Europe, Latin America, certain parts of Africa and most of Asia.
The question remains, why did D. M. Thomas choose to tell his story of this circle of friends in such an anti-dramatic manner? Because he is a poet? Because he has never written a novel before? Are we to assume he knew no better? I think the answer would surely be negative to all of the above. What Thomas' understated treatment does, however, is to emphasize the slow and certain depletion suffered by those who live and function independently in a state where such independence is simply not permitted. The nearest thing to "The Flute Player" in literature is the anti-climactic last section of "Doctor Zhivago," which ties together all the threads of lives and plot. A sustained anti-climax, I think, was what Thomas intended here, for that comes closest to capturing the quality of life that he describes in this unusual first novel.