A Boy's Fantasy Life as Josef Stalin

There really isn't much truth in the familiar, exasperated parental exclamation: "Boys will be boys." In my humble experience, boys are far more likely to be air-guitar heroes head-banging their way through blistering solos in front of grimy, speckled bedroom mirrors. Or soccer strikers on their way to scoring that vital last-minute goal that clinches the match for Argentina in the final of the World Cup. Or, as Simon Sebag Montefiore illustrates in his new novel My Affair with Stalin, boys can also be genocidal, ruthless dictators torturing confessions out of huge swathes of the Russian population while herding multitudes of others into far-flung gulags.

Adolescent fantasy forms the backbone of Montefiore's work as his protagonist, William Conroy, an 11-year-old pupil at the upscale, English Coverdale public school, indulges an obsession with Josef Stalin to a degree which gives his teachers more than a little cause for concern. "My affair with Stalin surprised both of us," Conroy proclaims in the opening chapter, "I was still a child he was already one of the most powerful men in the world. When we fell in love, we were just dedicated revolutionaries devoted to building a brave socialist paradise for the workers of the world."

At first, this "love" expresses itself in relatively harmless ways, in innocent nighttime dormitory lectures on the life and ideas of his idol. But pretty soon, Conroy begins modeling his behavior on the murderous Georgian and is forcing his friends to call him Koba, Stalin's underground code name. He also takes to shouting "All power to the Soviets" during class, referring to his associates as "Tovarishch," and promising a revolution "before next term." As the book proceeds, the narrative of Conroy's school life begins to mold itself around the real chronology of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Thus we get chapters headed: Civil War, The Police State, The Destruction of Trotsky and The Great Purges.

Some of the parallels that Montefiore draws are quite interesting. The October Revolution is organized to displace a group of rugby-playing heavies named the Dugganoes from their tree-house sanctuary-fortress: "We had to amass our Red Guards swiftly to storm the Winter Palace of the Dugganoes' Camp," says Conroy grandiosely, "Or the God of History would pass us by forever." During the great purges of Coverdale school, the victims are taken not to the Lubyanka basement but to the chemistry lab where the other boys get to work on them with Bunsen burners. And in perhaps the most absorbing passage of the book, the teenage Bolsheviks draw blood by "stoning" their victims with hairbrushes, spread very real terror with live rats and almost cause actual bodily harm to a counter-revolutionary named Nonsuch, who is left tied to a bed until he confesses. "I had never seen anything so terrifying as Nonsuch shaking all over and foaming and had never heard such a sound as Nonsuch screaming. No one knew he was epileptic." By this time -- around 1938 in the fictional timescale -- even Stalin/Conroy realized that it had all gotten out of hand.

But some of the other analogies are far less successful. Sequences where a boy named Crabbe is equated with Trotsky and thrown out of the party are dull and perfunctory. The Doctors' Plot, in which the school doctor informs on the revolutionaries to the headmaster, is equally asinine. Though the award for the most idiotic correlation comes in the section entitled "The Battle of Britain," where the boys engage the enemy by racing around their dormitories with a flashlight in one hand and their private parts firmly grasped in the other: "We don't call them 'private parts' sir," says Conroy, when discovered by a teacher, "We called them Spitfires. And Spitfires fought the Battle of Britain. And using our torches after 'lights-out,' we project our Spitfires in silhouette on the ceiling." Also problematic is the idiomatic "schoolboy" style that Montefiore adopts throughout to tell his story and the liberal use of expressions such as "Gosh," "Blimey," and "Hard Cheese," designed to give the narrative a comic book feel. On the whole, it adds nothing in the way of wit or irony and serves only to "dumb down" the text or, at the very best, to make it a poor replica of the "Secret Seven" books by English children's writer Enid Blyton. Equally frustrating were the simplistic explanations of Russian history, added, no doubt at the behest of an overcautious editor.

But the greatest fault of "My Affair with Stalin," is the shallowness of the whole exercise from beginning to end. Though Montefiore makes his points fairly clearly -- Conroy and his friends are portrayed as "Cabbages" or boys with no aptitude for sports -- the thesis that the totalitarian instinct is an overcompensation for personal shortcomings and failures in some other field is bound to win the author no prizes at all. The text also contains the less overt assertion that Stalin and his henchmen were themselves a group of scheming schoolboys who let the whole schoolyard game get out of hand. Regarding this, I can only express the regret that Stalin didn't confine himself to hoarding chocolate and masturbation.

Montefiore himself seems to have done all he could to live out his own personal adventure fantasies. He has traveled widely in the Caucasus, was besieged with the Georgian president in his palace and expelled from Grozny for allegedly being a British spy. He is also a regular contributor to such prestigious publications as the English Sunday Times, The Spectator and The New York Times. But in "My Affair With Stalin" he has created a real dud, a one-note affair that doesn't manage to transcend its single running joke.

Once the reader gets the gag -- which occurs half way into the first page -- the long slide into tedium begins. And the further we proceed into the fantasy world he creates, reading "My Affair With Stalin" becomes more and more like wading through molasses.

"My Affair With Stalin," published by Wedenfeld & Nicolson. Provisional ?16.99. 240 pages.