“If you liked The Death of Stalin…” – The Zoo by Christopher Wilson

tzcwLike Toby Jones’ performance as Truman Capote (in Infamous), sometimes good things are overshadowed by other, equally good things, telling a similar story at a similar time (so for Toby Jones, that was Philip Seymour Hoffman also playing Truman Capote at roughly the same time and, you know, winning an Oscar for it). Christopher Wilson’s Philip Seymour Hoffman is Armando Iannucci’s excellent, The Death of Stalin. Both The Zoo and The Death of Stalin inhabit a similar space and a similar time, both are really funny (we’d even go as far to say that The Zoo is the funnier of the two), both provide a kind of a boost – in that, if you read or watch one, and like it, you’ll heartily enjoy the other and each serve to surprise you by demonstrating that some of the more outre aspects of the story (like Stalin’s drunken son ‘losing’ a hockey team) are obviously true as they are mentioned in both. At the same time, the way in which the two versions differ provides an additional frisson too: Wilson’s story has more of a run-up to the death itself and a surprising coda that seeks to retell the official version of events.

Told by Yuri, a young boy with a number of infirmities, conscripted into the employ of Stalin as a food taster, The Zoo has

“murder, medicine, theatre, cookery, juggling, skulduggery, impersonation, elephants, fate, within a whodunit, inside a mystery, wrapped in a tissue of lies, stuffed in a cardboard box, locked up in the under stairs cupboard.”

Stalin is as contradictory as you would expect, a frail monster, an egotistical clown, a finger pointing tyrant, a duplicitous alcoholic, a stroke-addled, paranoid Iron Man surrounded by alternative versions of himself that are called upon when alternative versions are required by the State. Bruhah, one of the more vicious of his lieutenants, advises Yuri thus:

“Look him in the eye. But don’t look at him too long in the eye… Always tell him the truth. But don’t tell him too much truth… Do not show any weakness. But you should not show strength either. It will make him ill at ease. Say whatever you want, by all means. As long as it’s what he wants to hear. Do you understand me?”

Wilson likes to stack his sentences like a comedian and Yuri offers him a useful device through which to offer a prism of history we are all more or less familiar with (even if the familiarity is in broad part as a result of Iannucci’s recent film). Yuri admits his “Papa used to call me his Koschei, The Deathless, after the character in the fairytale who could never be killed” (and Yuri definitely is a cat with nine lives and some to spare) but he may also remind readers somewhat of Perchov from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated too. The other book that serves as a useful touchstone for what is going on here is Tomás Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, which did for Peron what Wilson is here doing for Stalin (and each has a proliferation of unfortunate doubles too).

“Even now,” Yuri tells us,

“I don’t understand everything. To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native, tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret policeman, have a reindeer-horn pocket knife, with one of those special can-operner attachments, be able to drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in assassinations.”

It may be that Christopher Wilson curses the day that Armando Iannucci sought to tell a similar story at a similar time – but on the evidence of The Zoo Wilson has talent to spare and I’m sure he’ll be back with something equally invigorating soon. If it helps, Iannucci is working on new Alan Partridge and an adaptation of David Copperfield – so as long as you steer well clear of both of those, you’ll be fine…

Any Cop?: It’s the kind of page-turning, blacker than black comedy you don’t chance across all that often. We liked.

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