He takes as his foil, the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, perhaps the most-fêted composer during Russia’s embrace of communism, dropping in on three key junctures for him, the years 1936, 1948 and 1960.
After a decade of dazzling success, Shostakovich’s star unaccountably crashes to earth when summoned to the Big House for an interrogation.
He knew the call was coming. At the time, friends and peers were daily disappearing, either killed or possibly worse — whisked off in rattling, typhus-ridden trains to Stalin’s gulags in the East.
An editorial in Pravda denounced his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, as “muddle instead of music”. A couple of days beforehand, the Great Leader Joseph Stalin attended a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre and was appalled by its booming, dreary experimentalism.
He wanted accessible, “optimistic” music for the proletariat, not the kind of jazzy fare that Shostakovich was serving up, which “tickled the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music”.
Stalin — whose main fault, according to Vladimir Lenin, when dictating his political will and running over his potential successors, was his “rudeness” — is a captivating presence in the novel.
He looms over the action, a fearful presence, but is also humorous putty in the hands of Barnes.
When he hears that the modernist poet Anna Akhmatova inspired a group of Leningrad poets to rise in applause on arriving on stage, he demanded furiously from his apparatchiks: “Who organised the standing up?”
In the Big House, Shostakovich is squeezed for information about a plot to assassinate Stalin.
He escapes death, however, when fortuitously for him his interrogator disappears during a weekend break from his grilling, and his case is shelved.
During the Patriotic War against the Nazis, his reputation is revived, as his music is in demand. A few years after the war finishes, he is sent to the United States on a publicity mission.
It is a novel experience. Reporters and photographers besiege him at LaGuardia airport. He’s bemused by their “cheerful rudeness” and their habit of truncating his name:
“Hey, Shosti, look this way! Wave your hat at us!” … “Hey Shosti, how do you like America?
“Do you prefer blondes or brunettes?” By this stage in his career, he’s a proper stooge of the regime, though.
It pains him to have to rabbit two scripted speeches to the New York public, damning the West’s decadence and his hero, the exiled Igor Stravinsky, for being a capitalist lackey.
By 1960, Stalin is dead, but Nikita Khrushchev heaps further indignity by forcing him to join the Communist Party, a fate he had managed to escape until then.
Barnes’s novel, which is only a slip of thing at 180 pages, is a marvellous meditation on the Cold War era and particularly the battles of conscience that besiege a man living under tyranny.
How is it possible to stay alive without compromising artistic integrity in such circumstances?
“It was not easy being a coward,” he writes.
“Being a hero was much easier than being a coward. To be a hero, you only had to be brave for a moment — when you took out the gun, threw the bomb, pressed the detonator, did away with the tyrant, and with yourself as well.
“But to be a coward was to embark on a career that lasted a lifetime. You couldn’t ever relax.
“You had to anticipate the next occasion when you would have to make excuses for yourself, dither, cringe, reacquaint yourself with the taste of rubber boots and the state of your own fallen, abject character.
"Being a coward required pertinacity, a refusal to change — which made it, in a way, a kind of courage.”