DM Thomas is not afraid of big themes, events, major historical characters and incidents. In Ararat he takes on himself the task of ‘finishing’ a poem by Pushkin, writing a graphic description of a forgotten holocaust ¬ or at least a rarely mentioned one when an estimated one million people were slaughtered during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 - and sets up one of his narrators as a leading writers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Its theme is the creative process of writing, particularly improvisation, and I suppose as a writer that is what attracts me to it. Not so much the improvisation element but the reflections of real-life scenarios, incidents and characters and how they become distorted and transformed to create fiction and poetry.
The first time I read Ararat I thought it was a bit of a cop out and that Thomas had simply taken fragments from various stories, half-written novels and poems and constructed a loose narrative to tie them all together. Three people agree to improvise stories and poems for one another. One of them, a Soviet writer, improvises a story about a Soviet writer who on a one-night stand agrees, after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with his blind companion, to improvise a story for her about another Soviet writer who is trying to complete a Pushkin story and poem about an ‘improviastore’. It is a bit like a series of Russian dolls and you wonder which one is the main doll in which all the rest are contained.
Major themes aside, one of things I love about these books is the sense of time and place that has now passed but which I can imaginatively identify with. The Soviet Union and the European Eastern Bloc haunted my imagination during the late 1970s, mostly because they were portrayed in the media as the enemy who might wipe us out at any minute. Thomas – who has translated the poems of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova into English and written a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn – doesn’t glamorize them but neither does he demonise them. His fictional Soviet writer Rosanov deals with the reality in which he lives. He is wary of ‘the authorities', unduly drawing attention to himself.
“The Sakharovs were somewhere in Gorky, but they would not thank him for turning up at their door at midnight. Besides, they were being watched, it could only bring trouble.” (Ararat pp15).
Yet he is distrustful of the west: “If the [USSR] didn’t exist [the USA] would have to invent her, yah?” (Ararat pp 143).
Perhaps Thomas did tie up a number of previously unrelated fragments under this improvisation theme – and I still got that impression during a recent rereading of Ararat. But while they clash and occasionally jar they do coalesce in to an edgy narrative that Thomas managed to carry on and develop through a further four novels – including Swallow and Sphinx which I’ve read – in which he continues with his improvisation theme and in which comfortingly familiar characters from Ararat appear, although in a sometimes slightly metamorphisised form.