Diavolina, a housemaid who rose to be a physician, worked as a servant for Maxim Gorky, his wives, lovers, and the crowds of hangers-on who constantly swarmed around the world-famous Russian author. She then became his nurse and his last love. In Diavolina, György Spiró conjures the world of Czarist Russia in its final years and the Soviet Union in its first decades – including the Great Purge of the 1930s – from the perspective of this shrewd and discerning woman, including the disturbing parallels between the new autocracy and the old: revolutions, intrigues and, above all, untold numbers of dead.
In 1921, Lenin drove Gorky out of his homeland. Gorky settled on the island of Capri in Italy. Mussolini, who had just come to power, approved his request for a residence permit, saying that a man who was writing his memoirs could hardly pose a threat. Seven years later Stalin compelled the ailing writer to return to the Soviet Union and immediately put him to work. Gorky, who was dangerously ill, attempted both to defy and fulfil expectations. Trusting in his own stature and strength of character, he sought to outwit the regime. He divided his time between, on the one hand, writing Stalinist eulogies and fulminating against the enemies of the regime, and, on the other writing letters, organizing meetings and trying to convince party leaders to release people from prison. As Diavolina notes maliciously, “five people were rescued, five hundred were arrested, five thousand were executed – this was the rate under Lenin as well as under Stalin.”
Every character in this novel is based on a historical figure, and even the most astonishing stories in it are true. As we read, we feel we are among the ever-changing circles of guests – artists, writers, intellectuals, scoundrels, and murderers – who over the decades frequented Gorky’s many homes.
Communism is the dogma of small-minded seekers after vengeance, the dictatorship of the talentless, Aleksei kept saying. Brainless blackguards came streaming out of the woodwork and liquidated everyone more decent than themselves and they called that revolution. Apart from being editor-in-chief of several periodicals and a series of books, Aleksei saved 276 people from execution; a few years later a third of them were executed anyway.”
Gorky’s last ten years during the Great Purge of the Stalinist 1930s
ISBN 978 963 1432 49 7
2015, hard cover with jacket
208 pages, 123 × 184 mm
French, Actes Sud
English excerpts available