Some real persons have biographies so passionate that in them are found more adventures, more unrepeatable historical scenes, and of course, more extraordinary experiences that those offered by purely fictional ones. The difficulty for the author, in those cases, is to hit on the right tone, rhythm, and dimension for the narrative, because it’s not necessary to invent facts, but only to imagine their context. One such person was the singer Lina Codina, wife of the composer Sergei Prokofiev and the protagonist of Una pasión rusa (A Russian Passion), the novel by Reyes Monforte that won the Alfonso X (Alfonso the Wise) Prize for Historical Fiction in 2015.
Lina Codina was born in Madrid in 1897 to a Spanish father and a Russian mother. She could have had a career as a singer had she not succumbed on occasions to an almost paralyzing insecurity. Yet she spoke half a dozen languages and captivated everyone with her beauty, her sense of the artistic and her supreme elegance. She was Sergei Prokofiev’s muse, the woman guided his personal and creative life for two decades, his indispensable companion in the salons and coteries of Paris and New York… and the one who looked out for him when the composer heard the siren song of the motherland and took the erroneous decision to return to his native country, in spite of being advised not to do so by friends and other Russian émigrés.
In Moscow, the Prokofievs were received with honors and enjoyed some initial artistic successes but in time came to suffer the insidiousness of the regime and the deterioration of their relationship. Soon reports came in of artists and creators disappearing in the black hole of the Lubyanka, the sinister prison in the center of the Soviet capital. Lina pleaded with Sergei to return to New York or to settle in Paris… They never did. In fact, Lina was left alone because
Entering the scene was a young woman without apparent attraction, but who very well-connected with the Soviet Central Committee and was a fervent admirer of the composer. Her name was Mira Mendelson and Profokiev absconded with her and later married her, even though he had never divorced Lina. Was he forced to do it or was it his own decision? In any case, after the war, Lina was falsely accused of espionage, and ended where many other innocents were consigned, in the Siberian gulag, where she remained until Stalin’s death.
The story is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, from Lina’s point of view and in detail, starting from the moment when she first met the composer In New York and became his wife. Later came the happy years in Paris of the 1920s, that time of success and fame, of parties and applause, and of the formation of a family. Then the couple and their sons went to live in Moscow and Lina experiences abandonment, war, detention and punishment. Parading through the novel are a great number of celebrated personalities, including Coco Chanel, Arthur Rubinstein, Vselvelod Meyerhold, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Shostakovich, Sergei Diaghilev, Charles Chaplin, Maurice Ravel, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Charles De Gaulle, Marshal Tuckhachevsky, Vyacheslav Molotov, and the omnipresent Joseph Stalin, and no major historical episode goes unremarked, from the famines and purges to the bombardment of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad.
Una pasión rusa recounts a tale of love that, if it weren’t because it was documented point by point, would seem impossible for being so excessive. The novel also falls into excess at some times; certain chapters reach the saturation point in regards to facts and characters, making the reading slower and less entertaining, and the people mentioned in passing are often not developed further. But these are minor quibbles for a text that will delight both fans of the historical novel and of love stories so stirring that they seem incredible.
In conclusion, Una pasión rusa is a fictionalized biography set in a very compelling historical time, and through the prism of Lina Prokofiev’s life, the reader is shown the best and the worst aspects of being human, from the most sublime moments to the most tragic. Reyes Monforte is a skillful researcher and an elegant narrator who deserves to be translated into English.