I’m always a little suspicious of award winning books because their selection by committee often means that compromises have been made somewhere along the line. These were not evident when I read Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It is a classic work of faction, weaving together real people and events into a fictional narrative. The use of short simple sentences increases its impact. It is a fantastic, almost surreal, story with great heights and matching lows. It is centred around the life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the Theremin, an instrument which can create music from radio waves.
The Soviets immediately see the application of this new technology in their espionage efforts and despatch Lev to America where he succumbs to the attractions of capitalism. He also falls for Clara Rockmore, his ‘one true love’. His time is split between meeting American industrial magnates – creating the possibilities for stealing their secrets – and living it up in the Jazz Age clubs of New York. His Soviet handlers come and go and send him on one particular mission which has very tragic consequences. And then suddenly he is torn from this life of luxury and ease and taken back to Russia, accused of treason against Mother Russia. On the long journey home he writes a number of letters to Clara which tell his sad story. Back in the USSR he is sent to a number of increasingly harsh labour camps until he is spotted and rescued by Beria, the head of the NKVD. Beria demands that he invents listening devices which have no wires and which cannot be detected. These are tested on the American Ambassador but their ultimate use is against Stalin himself. The real Lev died in 1993, aged 97.
John Pateman is Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library.