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Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva: The Zoo is a satire on the slipping away of Stalin’s all-encompassing power. Photograph: AP Photo/Courtesy Icarus Films

The Zoo review: John Boyne on a jovial guide through Stalinism’s dying days

Christopher Wilson has written an entertaining but unremarkable political satire

Political satire has been all the rage in bookshops ever since the unexpected events of last November. Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which describes the election of a fearmongering demagogue to the US presidency, has become a bestseller while Howard Jacobson’s Pussy was apparently written in a flurry of outrage around the same time as Hillary Clinton was rocking back and forth in her hotel suite, arms wrapped around her knees, whispering “no… no…” to anyone who would listen.

Now Christopher Wilson has entered the fray, not with a satire on the Donald but on America’s traditional enemy, Russia, setting a novel during the closing months of Josef Stalin’s life, when he suffered a series of strokes that left both him and the 15 Soviet Republics over which he ruled in a traumatised state.

The Zoo is narrated by 12-year-old Yuri Zipit, the son of an elephantologist at the Kapital Zoo, who unexpectedly finds himself installed as Stalin’s official food taster. It’s not a job with a great future, his employer concedes. “I had a food taster before, and one before that, and one before that. But none of them stuck to the task. They were all allergic to toxins. Each in his different way. One was sensitive to strychnine. And another was allergic to cyanide.”

At first, Yuri – who was struck by a milk truck when he was six leaving him with some problems in the “thinking departments” – believes that the old man lying in the bed simply looks like the Great Leader but when he realises the truth he’s blasé about the whole thing. In fact, he’s more concerned about the well-being of his father who has gone missing and communicates with him solely through the occasional cheerful letter that, quite clearly, has not been written by him at all.

Amusing and menacing

The success of a novel like this depends largely on the voice of its narrator and Yuri is a jovial guide through the dying days of Stalinism. By nature of his duties he becomes “both a light smoker and a heavyish drinker”, and while the conversations between he and the general secretary are often amusing, a more menacing aspect lies beneath their surface.

Stalin is appalled by Yuri’s happy childhood. “Did your father and mother not beat you?” he asks. “Viciously? Without reason? Like proper parents? Does your mother not hit you hard, for nothing, mornings and evenings with a wooden spoon, or a broomstick?” No, replies Yuri, for his is a house of kindness in a country filled with dread. However, the realities of Soviet life are brought to the fore when Yuri points out that his mother couldn’t have beaten him anyway, for she’s been exiled to a work camp at Kolyma.

The sinister elements to The Zoo sit comfortably alongside the comedy. Hovering around Stalin’s sick room waiting for him to die, the generals are filled with anxiety about who might succeed him while outside the walls, the Russian people are terrified of expressing opinions on anything in case they’re reported as anti-party and dragged off to a Gulag prison camp.

One longs for it to have begun a few years earlier, while Stalin was still in good health, so the action could have been broadened out from its claustrophobic setting

Despite Stalin’s own assertion that gaiety was the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union, the novel seems clouded in darkness and trepidation with only the simple-minded Yuri, our reliably unreliable narrator, bringing a sense of optimism to the story.

Claustrophobic setting

If there are flaws to The Zoo it’s that it quickly becomes repetitive. Very little happens and once the initial conceit has been played for most of its laughs it lingers in a state of paralysis, much like Stalin himself, uncertain how to draw drama from the relationship between a developmentally challenged child and a dying dictator. Perhaps Wilson realises this, for the novel is short and does not outstay its welcome. At times though, one longs for it to have begun a few years earlier, while Stalin was still in good health, so the action could have been broadened out from its claustrophobic setting to a portrait of a living revolutionary instead of a dying animal.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has cited Ernest Hemingway and Jack London as two of his favourite writers, manly novelists who embraced the outdoor life. This is very much an indoor life novel, full of small dark rooms where voices are held just above a whisper for fear of incrimination, so Putin may not enjoy it but as a satire on the slipping away of all-encompassing power, it makes for an entertaining, if unremarkable, read.

John Boyne’s latest novel is The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday)