Living History: An Interview with Helen Dunmoreby Sarah Hilary • 03.24.2011
Helen Dunmore has twice written about a generation nearly swept away by history, first in The Siege and then in The Betrayal. Sarah Hilary interviewed her, to find out how this history pushes at the edges of the unfamiliar to expose controversies and truths that resonate for modern readers.
You’ve said that you didn’t choose Russia, Russia chose you. Can you tell us a little about your main characters and how their story chose you?
As a reader you have to be passionately interested in the fate of the characters. My heroes, Anna and Andrei, are seasoned survivors; their childhood and youth was spent in a climate of increasing repression. I’m very admiring of the resourcefulness of human beings when their backs are to the wall. But at the same time, Anna and Andrei are not wanting to rise above the everyday, because for them the everyday is precious and very, very fragile.
Your characters were living through an amazing period of history, but you don’t let that swallow the story of their personal lives, which remains very intimate. What struck you most when you were researching for the novels?
The sense of disbelief felt by those living through the Terror. Teachers, scientists and engineers who fell victim to Stalin’s need to control. This need was brutally evidenced everywhere, but few could imagine themselves being crushed by it, in the way that so many were. History is always the thing you’re not planning for, not prepared for, not thinking about. The thing that suddenly sweeps in.
Can you tell us a little about the distinction you draw between a fictional account of history and what you’ve termed “faction”: the attempt to fit inconvenient or unpalatable truths to the shape of a modern novel?
I would say hindsight has no place in historical fiction. It must be saturated in its own time, have its own system, one without the luxury of foresight or premonition. History before it is aware of being history, if you will. Anna and Andrei aren’t aware of how their history will unfold. They only know they’re fighting to preserve some minimal personal space in the face of State intrusion. They have threads of steel, and they share a boundless appetite for living. They relish life.
What about the infamous real-life characters from that time? The presence of Stalin is felt throughout The Betrayal. How did you feel about him as you were writing?
At the time of The Betrayal, Stalin is an aged man headed towards death, about to encounter something he can’t control, can’t purge or assassinate. What is he going to do about mortality? He’s going to see it as a conspiracy, and try and root it out. The fact that senior Party officials are dying becomes a plot. Doctors become implicated. This is his response to death: it has got to be a plot and if he can just get on top of it, the way he’s got on top of every other plot, he will be able to survive.
The Siege has been translated into Russian, and hopefully The Betrayal will follow. What do you think is the legacy this era bequeathed to modern Russia?
Like all societies, it’s a society of transformation. I’m fascinated by patterns of the past, and how these can be seen in the fabric of the present. There is a very deep history in Russia of having an immensely privileged layer of society and extreme inequalities, for instance in access to goods and services. But maybe in the West we are also a society that worships power and privilege. We should ask ourselves, what are the consequences of these inequalities and divisions? Maybe we need to think more deeply about the tragedy of ordinary people – veterans returning from wars to find they cannot get replacement limbs, the hardships facing pensioners, the stoicism of those paying the price for the experience of the minority. These are present tragedies, not past, and not confined to Russia.
I wouldn’t expect people to read The Betrayal and think “this is a country far away and long ago”. I would expect them to think “this is what can happen”. I’m not judging that time or society by different norms to our own.
We won’t know, at all, what people will look back and think of us. The things that they will consider bizarre and unbelievable. We don’t know, and won’t know. There’s no room for complacency. We have to be vigilant.
*Image by Caroline Forbes