The theme is about the balance between authentic artistry and survival, between coming up for your ideas and ideals, while trying to stay alive in a very hostile environment. He yields and stays true to himself. Barnes' account of the composer's life is built around memories of situations, not always chronologically, nor even logically, but as little vignettes that gradually present his feelings, his remorse, his doubts, his moral musings, placed in the context of history.
It is a novel about the individual survival within the system he abhors. It is about authenticity and untruth, the constant lies by the Power, the propaganda and their so-called moral superiority ... and later the fact that becomes a puppet for the Soviet system, and tries to avoid it. Shostakovitch is not a hero in the traditional sense, and even the very concept of "hero" gets undermined: "But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction - to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior - they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear".
His only heroism is to be true to himself and his music: to create something that would survive him, the music that would say everything there is to tell, that is more and better than dying as a martyr, but also this comes at a price:" 'He could not live with himself'. It was just a phrase, but an exact one. Under the pressure of the Power, the self cracks and splits. The public coward lives with the private hero. Or vice versa. Or, more usually, the public coward lives with the private coward. But that is too simple: the idea of a man split into two by a dividing axe. Better: a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they - he - once fitted together."
This novel is brilliant because of its style, its composition, its tone and lack of answers, its sensitive rendering of internal and external struggles, its historical value and insight in human nature.