Country of the Heart, by Kay Nolte Smith, New York: Villard, 322 pages, $17.95
Kay Nolte Smith's latest mystery novel, Country of the Heart, is a fierce indictment of Soviet censors who ultimately triumph over art because time is on their side, and time is all it takes to break an individual's creative spirit. As one of her main characters points out, an artist can have the courage to fight for the integrity of his work but only "courage-to-a-point." Knowing how the state can force the individual to conform to the kollektiv, the censored at last becomes his own censor.
The book opens with Veruschka and Anna Nikolayev, a mother and daughter who defected from the Soviet Union nearly 20 years earlier. Settled in New York under their new names, Vera and Hedy Lucas, the two succeed in adjusting to the exhilarating and bewildering American world of choices, but they remain tortured by unanswered questions from their Russian past.
Hedy's father, Boris Nikolayev, one of Russia's greatest composers, was supposed to have defected with them in Paris, where he had been invited to conduct the Western premiere of his symphony. The carefully rehearsed plan called for mother and daughter to elude their Soviet escort during a shopping trip. Meanwhile, Boris, in a bistro having lunch with the Soviet deputy minister of culture, would pretend to go to the bathroom and escape through the back door. All three would rendezvous at the U.S. embassy nearby. Hedy and her mother made it; Boris never showed up.
Now Hedy and Vera learn that Boris, in his first trip abroad since Paris, will be at a music festival in Helsinki. At the request of her dying mother, who never gave up hope of a reunion, Hedy decides to go to Helsinki to discover the truth. Why didn't her father get to the embassy? Was he discovered? How? Did the KGB stop him? Or did Hedy inadvertently betray her father by revealing their impending defection to the man she loved?
Hedy disguises herself as a blonde and poses as a brash American journalist at work on a book about Boris's life and music. From here on, the novel spirals into an intensely absorbing drama of deceit and discovery, acceptance and absolution. In the almost surrealistic world of Finland, where the summer sun never sets, Hedy is catapulted back to her past as she meets again the three men who dominated her Russian youth: the brilliant but tortured, distant, and brooding father she wanted desperately to understand; Alik Markov, the passionate and uncompromising poet/singer who shared her hunger for freedom; and Rodion Orlov, the powerful Soviet official who controlled yet shielded her father.
The tension mounts when Hedy, under the pretext of getting first-hand material for her book, forces Orlov's hand by demanding a private interview with her father. In a follow-up interview, she reveals her identity to her father and quickly whispers to him that she has arranged for his defection and will come to get him the next day. But when she returns, Hedy discovers the surprising answer to the question that has been plaguing her mother all these years—the real reason why her father did not defect.
Amid this background of intrigue and fear emerges the disturbing and complex portrait of Hedy's father, a man who possesses monumental genius yet is enslaved by his music, a man who needs the very chains that bind him inexorably to the Russian earth in order to soar musically, a man who doesn't have the courage to be free but triumphs in his own way over Soviet control by doing the next best thing: giving the gift of freedom to the only people he loves. But it is in Hedy, whose "quiet, rocklike refusal to accept" government oppression, that Smith has created an enduring and memorable heroine.
In addition to being a damn good read, Smith's novel serves as an essential reminder for freedom-loving individuals to maintain constant vigilance against everything that chips away at our liberty. She echoes a frustration I, as someone who chose to be an American citizen, have always felt about some Americans' attitude toward liberty: For them, freedom is like the air they breathe. It's always there, so easy to take for granted—until it's gone. With Country of the Heart, Smith adds her own powerful voice to make sure that never happens.
Mariam Brillantes is a free-lance writer living in New York City.