POLITICAL: Us Conductors – Sean Michaels

From My Bookshelf by Lynn Willoughby:

Us Conductors ~ Sean Michaels

This novel by Canadian Sean Michaels won the 2014 Giller Prize. However, this doesn’t always mean it is a great read for me. Often the prose is excellent but the story is very esoteric. This one is a living history of the jazz age in New York to the gulags and science prisons in the Soviet Union under Stalin. I could not put it down.

This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Leon Termen, the Russian engineer who invented the theremin – an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact. There are two metal antennas that sense the position of the hands. One antenna controls occillations for frequency, one for volume. While Termen is in the US giving concerts, teaching students and selling theremins, he is also enjoying jazz, hobnobbing with the great musicians of the day and dancing and falling in love in various clubs and speakeasies.

Eventually his handlers inform him he is about to be arrested for tax evasion and spying. He leaves abruptly and is now held prisoner on a boat bound for Russia. He worries constantly about his equipment, his tubes and wires, his new inventions. He doesn’t ever realize he will be sent to a gulag in Siberia, in a cattle car, for treason.

This part of the book is difficult to read. The descriptions of the cold, the work, the starvation, the living conditions and the deaths among the prisoners is hard going. What keeps Termen going is a never ending inner dialogue with Clara, a woman from New York he is deeply in love with. This dialogue continues for years and is especially important in Siberia. Eventually someone realizes who they have here as a prisoner and he is taken to Moscow to become a scientific prisoner. Make no mistake, he is still a prisoner but has unlimited equipment to work with, better food and it is certainly warmer.

The prose in this novel is so descriptive and gut wrenching I often felt part of the story. When Termen describes his first time in the sunshine after years spent in gulags, jail or labs, you could almost smell the green!

The music is always a part of this book, but so is Termen’s brilliance in his many, many commercial inventions – for submarines, airplanes, the first bugging device, motion sensors. These become increasingly important as WWII drags on.

This is a wonderful story. Read this book!


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