Anthea Nicholson’s The Banner of the Passing Clouds (Granta Books 289pp £14.99) follows the life of an eccentric recording artist living under the Soviet occupation of Georgia. He is born on the night of Stalin’s death (the fittingly ordered 5.3.1953) and christened with the latter’s original name (Iosif Dzhugashvili). Soon enough he becomes convinced that the ‘old man of steel’ lives within the ‘spongy mass of [his] lungs’. Like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, he betrays his oddities – and, at times, his complicity in the events he narrates – in the weirdly selective details he chooses to note. When he accidentally foils his brother and sister-in-law’s defection by handing the KGB a tape of their nocturnal plotting, the fact that he has been recording them receives only passing mention – as does a snog with his girlfriend’s mother.
Both Igor’s monologue and the novel’s third-person coda are rendered in a supple and rhythmic prose. The divide between the simple-mindedness of his observations and the beauty of their expression is deeply funny. Everything is coloured by his loyalty to the Party: prostitutes are ‘kerbside comrades’; cigarette smoke with an