Historical fiction, by definition, supplements the verifiable documentary record with elements of the imagination. Otherwise, it is not fiction but history. These elements often include invented characters, made-up dialogue, the filling in of vague or unknowable events and personalities. Through the more or less careful manipulation of historical truth, the novelist seeks to uncover a deeper emotional truth that speaks to both the reality of a past time and the needs of the present.
Before and During (Dedalus Books, 2014)—Vladimir Sharov’s exploration of Soviet life and the revolutionary movement that preceded it, skillfully translated by Oliver Ready—pushes historical invention to its limits. Set in a Moscow psychiatric hospital circa 1965, the novel follows a patient identified only as Alyosha as he pursues his self-assigned quest to create a Memorial Book of the Dead, à la Ivan the Terrible, by recording the life stories of those around him and people of importance in his own past. One fellow-patient, Ifraimov, launches into a long and fantastical account of reincarnation, philosophy, revolution, free love, and incest that sweeps from Mme de Staël and Lev Tolstoy to Lenin and Stalin—assiduously recorded by Alyosha.
As Sharov’s English-language publisher puts it, “Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies—all described in a serious, steady voice—Sharov seeks to retrieve the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation, and God.” It’s quite a ride. But if you love Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, this book’s for you.