THE KREMLIN BALL, BY CURZIO MALAPARTE, TRANSLATED BY JENNY MCPHEE
“One cannot pretend that in a revolution only the guilty die,” exclaims the eponymous narrator of Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball. “Imagine such a thing! Someone has to die. In fact, the death of someone innocent is always much more useful than the death of someone guilty.”
Set in the decadent, corrupt 1920s of Soviet Russia, the novel treats the communist aristocrats as fictional characters. It’s not so much that the novel has a disregard for true events, as the events are superfluous to the novel’s aim: a portrait of those lavish personalities on the cusp of destruction by firing squad, the last of Lenin’s cohort annihilated. Demise has not yet happened for the characters of The Kremlin Ball, who cavort with foreign ambassadors and, above all, gossip. Malaparte, an Italian and guest of the Soviets, is privy to the secrets of the whisperers. His status as an outsider enables him to speak his opinions freely, viewing Soviet society from both sides of the glass.
Malaparte is bedeviled by the issue of religion in Russia’s new communist heart. Where does Christ fit in this loudly, mockingly atheist realm? Furthermore, where is death? Malaparte’s musings on the fate of the old guard—among them such characters as Leon Trotsky’s sister—are both referential and, thanks to Jenny McPhee’s translation, effortlessly flowing. The narrator’s speculations about the aristocrats are interwoven with colorful traceries of Moscow. As the dream of communism sours, Malaparte explores the repressed sentimentalism and despair of his hosts, and the ominous shadow of something more dangerous than idealism.