Christopher Wilson’s new novel is much easier to enjoy than to categorise. And ‘enjoy’ is definitely the right word, even though The Zoo tackles subject matter that should, by rights, make for a punishingly bleak read.
The narrator is 12-year-old Yuri, whose misfortunes start with the fact that he’s growing up in Moscow in 1953 — and that a road accident when he was six damaged his brain, leaving him with a curious set of symptoms that couldn’t be worse suited to life under Stalin: a total lack of guile, a tendency to ask awkward questions and a face so angelically trustworthy that everybody tells him their deepest secrets.
Given that his wife is in a prison camp, Yuri’s father Roman, a professor of veterinary science at Moscow zoo, is understandably worried that the authorities will come for him next — and one night they do. (‘It’s two secret policemen,’ Yuri announces characteristically. ‘A fat one who’s out of breath, and a skinny one with yellow teeth.’) Their reason for coming, though, is not what he expected. Instead, he and Yuri are taken to a dacha where Stalin is lying ill, and — because he believes the medical profession is riddled with Jewish traitors — has insisted on being treated by a vet.
But even for a vet, suggesting that the Man of Iron might be subject to such shameful human weakness as a life-threatening disease is highly dangerous — and Roman vanishes soon afterwards. Yuri’s face, meanwhile, works its magic again. Appointed Stalin’s official food-taster and unofficial confidant, he now has a ringside view of the struggles for the succession among the Great Father’s vicious underlings.
In clumsier hands, the decision to play quite a lot of this for laughs — albeit pitch-dark ones — could well have led to a queasy mix of the heartless and the tasteless. Yet Wilson’s heightened realism and perfect control of tone mean that Stalin’s often comic monstrosity never makes him any less monstrous. It also means that when the moments of unalloyed horror come (and they do), they’re all the more horrifying for stopping our laughter in its tracks.
At one point, when Stalin rallies enough to return to his old blood-curdling form, Yuri finds himself both terrified and somehow reassured that the man is still capable of ‘swearing freely and threatening clearly’. Or, as he puts it, in a way that will surely strike a chord with anybody who reads this strange and brilliant novel: ‘It puts shivers through me. It brings a smile to my face.’