Avraham Bahar leaves Albania to seek a better life in, ironically, Stalinist Russia. A professional barber, he curries favor with the Communist regime, ultimately being invited to become Stalin’s personal barber. In the intrigue that follows Avraham, he is not only barber to Stalin but also to the many Stalin look-alikes that the paranoid dictator circulates to thwart possible assassination attempts.
Stalin's barber is Razeer Shtube, born Avraham Bahar, a Jewish-Albanian immigrant to the worker's paradise of Soviet Russia. Razeer marries Anna Lipnoskii, the widowed mother of four children, and with the help of her son begins shaving Stalin, or perhaps just one of the Vozhd's (or Leader's) rumored doubles. From these auspicious beginnings, Levitt's novel blossoms as it follows the Shtube clan across Europe, from Poland to Germany, from Italy to the Solovki prison camp, from Soviet Moscow to, finally, freedom; Levitt is ambitiously epic. In his world, Stalin tells Stalin jokes and the panoptic terror of the NKVD corrodes every relationship. With equal parts comedy and tragedy, Levitt vividly illustrates the darkly humorous experience of life in a totalitarian state, where no one can be trusted and the law is removed from reason. Particularly in the first half, the novel tends to sag under the weight of the largesse of its historical research. And occasional odd diction and tonal uncertainty are more common to works in translation. Yet the novel soars when Levitt (The Saint-Makers) brings the strands together in the second half. Razeer's suspenseful showdown with Stalin is a masterful, playful tease of the limits of historical fiction.