The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel

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9780060501365: The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel

With this remarkable debut novel, Ken Kalfus gives us a stunning triumph of invention -- an epic story about the death of two Russian visionaries, the life of a radical antihero, and the birth of a new kind of power.

It begins in 1910 in Astapovo, a remote Russian railway station, where Leo Tolstoy lies dying of pneumonia. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. They have been joined by a film company whose young assistant, Nikolai Gribshin, is capturing the extraordinary scene and learning how to wield a camera as a political tool. At this historic moment he comes across two men -- the scientist, Professor Vorobev, and the revolutionist, Joseph Stalin -- who have bold, mysterious plans for the future that will inevitably involve him. With the coming of the Russian Revolution, Gribshin takes on the nom de guerre Comrade Astapov and joins the Bolshevik ministry of propaganda. In league now with Stalin and Vorobev, he plots to kill Lenin and glorify his embalmed body, promoting a vision of lifeless immortality that will dominate the minds of millions. In this brutal, absurd age, Gribshin seeks to transform himself and redirect the course of history.

Displaying the same mastery of form and intimate knowledge of Russian culture that distinguished his award- winning short stories, Ken Kalfus has produced a work of grand scope and ambition. The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a mesmerizing novel of ideas that brilliantly links the tragedy and comedy of the Russian Revolution with the global empire of images that occupies our imaginations today. Filled with intelligence, humor, and rich, vivid storytelling, it firmly establishes Ken Kalfus as one of our most daring and talented writers.

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About the Author:

ken kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short story collections Thirst, which won the Salon Book Award, and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

From Publishers Weekly:

Kalfus's two well-received short story collections (Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies) set a high standard for his first novel, a sweeping, quasihistorical fiction spanning two tumultuous decades in Russia. From the opening scenes at Leo Tolstoy's deathbed (and the surrounding media circus) to the rise of Stalin, the narrative unfolds with Kalfus's signature mix of carefully researched history, subtle social commentary and leaping, imaginative storytelling. Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. This knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from postrevolution chaos toward the Soviet state and its bureaucracies, one of which is the Commissariat of Enlightenment, the powerful agency in charge of propaganda. The cinematographer's fate merges with that of Comrade Astapov, director of the massive Red agitprop campaign. Those who resist the commissariat include a church congregation that refuses to give up its faith, an experimental theater director, and a resilient young woman who makes an abstract, pornographic film in the name of sexual education for women. Unforgettable re-creations of embalmer and scientist Vladimir Vorobev (who mummified Lenin), Joseph Stalin and Countess Tolstoy anchor the plethora of plot developments, which involve many minor-and major-characters with double identities and secret agendas that demand patience and close attention from the reader. Told in supple, witty and gritty prose, the story exhibits all the vigorous intelligence and vision readers have come to expect from Kalfus.
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