This fascinating novel is easy to admire but harder to define. It’s an irreverent epic that carries a family through one of the most terrible eras in recent history: Joseph Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, when Stalin’s madness led to mass starvation, show trials and the summary execution of thousands. “Stalin’s Barber” captures that horror and yet maintains an undercurrent of absurdist humor. “The source of my humor is not joy but sorrow,” its title character says, and he surely speaks for the author, Paul M. Levitt, professor of English at the University of Colorado.
The barber is Razeer Shtube, a decent man who asks only to practice his trade in peace but was born in the wrong time and place. We meet him as he flees Albania, in 1931, in the face of worsening fascist violence and anti-Semitism. But where will he go? He has heard that a glorious new day is dawning in Russia, so he heads there. It is the first of his mistakes.
Razeer settles in a farming village nominally governed by the Communist Party. Moscow sends an officious young woman to cleanse the local party of undesirables. She finds that its members are mostly illiterate, corrupt and ignorant of party ideology, and she vows to have them sent to work camps for reeducation. Fortunately, Razeer and the local party boss learn that the woman has herself sinned against party orthodoxy and send her back to Moscow in defeat.
Various manifestations of love and lust enliven the story. Razeer, a longtime bachelor, marries Anna, a strong-minded and lusty widow with four grown children. Her children, whose drunken father beat them and their mother regularly, are skeptical of the sober and gentle Razeer because he’s a Jew — might not this nonbelieving devil slit their throats? — but in time they accept him. The sons are a blacksmith, a priest and an agent of the hated GPU, or secret police. Thanks to the son in the GPU, Razeer is invited to move to Moscow and be Stalin’s barber. He hesitates because he has heard, correctly, that “the closer one came to Stalin, the greater the danger.”
Still, he takes the job, despite reports that Stalin, fearing assassins, has several body doubles, and Razeer may never know if he is shaving the Beloved Leader or a stand-in. The Stalin that Razeer encounters is sometimes chatty and sentimental, sometimes monstrous. Although short, pock-marked, foul-smelling and crippled, he is famous for his romantic conquests. His other pleasures include American movies, particularly Chaplin comedies, Westerns and the Tarzan films. Soon, Razeer dreams of assassinating Russia’s leader, but he can never be sure he would slit the right man’s throat.
In Stalin’s police state, informers, hidden microphones and secret agents are everywhere. Nobody can be trusted. Children are urged to inform on their parents. Any joke about Stalin or questions about his policies can bring exile or death. “No one is innocent,” the secret police assume. To think for oneself is to be an enemy of the state. Levitt finds bitter humor in the spectacle of an entire nation dancing to the dictates of a madman.
Razeer’s stepson Dimitri, the secret agent, is secretly gay, which leads him into difficulty. His brother the priest is sent to spy in Rome, but falls under the spell of Mussolini. The third brother, the blacksmith, joins the army but deserts when he falls in love. Anna’s comely daughter rises so quickly in Moscow that she won’t sleep with anyone who isn’t a member of the Politburo. Another family member, an idealistic doctor, is sent to work in a mental institution where political dissidents are confined; they are, of course, among the sanest people in the novel. In one touching episode, the doctor loses his heart to a beautiful aristocrat who is kept in solitary confinement; they become prisoners together, talking about art and poetry and music, indifferent to the mad world they have left behind.
The novel ends in 1939 as the family members, despite the perils of war and winter, struggle to flee Russia. The reader cheers them on, even though we know the long odds against happy endings. Levitt’s powerful narrative variously suggests Chaplin’s “Great Dictator,” Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Voltaire’s “Candide,” Heller’s “Catch-22” and Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” but remains an entirely original, entirely remarkable work of the imagination.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
By Paul M. Levitt
Taylor Trade. 378 pp. $26.95