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Socialist Surrealism

In a recent essay published in the Russian emigré journal Kontinent and titled “The Literary Process in Russia,” Andrei Sinyavsky points out that labor camps and prisons are the predominant theme of the manuscripts that circulate unofficially in the Soviet Union. It is easy to understand why. Since the revolution in 1917, imprisonment and its effects have been, for Soviet writers, either the most overwhelming personal experience or a metaphor for life itself. In 1962, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn published his novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (the first officially permitted exploration of a prisoner’s fate), the bookstores were besieged by customers and the publishing houses engulfed by a flood of manuscripts about life in Stalin’s prisons and labor camps. Only a relative handful were published before the regime decided that things had gone far enough.

Today the manuscripts that circulate in samizdat reflect the need among large sections of the population to tell the truth in the face of the regime’s dissembling, and that truth continues to be expressed through the literary exposure of Stalinism and its lingering effects in contemporary Russian life. This situation, however, worries Sinyavsky. “The danger threatening modern Russian literature”—by which he means “banned literature”—“is of assuming the role of a sort of whining complaints book supposedly to be perused by the leaders (who don’t give a damn anyway) or to be stored away in a cupboard until the advent of those better times when people will have learned to live by the light of truth.” Sinyavsky fears that writers, “having exorcised [themselves] from the lie,” may “succumb to the temptation of the truth,” that literary values may become subordinated to the writer’s didactic intentions (however laudable), and that a species of writing may evolve which will really be nothing more than a mirror image to the school of socialist realism which the regime has long prescribed as the Soviet literary ideal.

The ideal was attacked by Sinyavsky over twenty years ago in an earlier essay, “On Socialist Realism.” There he criticized the official literary dogma and encouraged writers not to feel constrained by the themes and styles “recommended” to them by the party. But he also made an oblique attack on realism itself, speaking out against a revival of a naturalist school in Russian letters and for a replacement of “realistic descriptions of ordinary life” by a commitment to the “grotesque.” Instead of the objective truths of realism, literature should “teach us how to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the fantastic,” he wrote. For Sinyavsky, reality was a “hectoring taskmaster,” an albatross around the necks of writers whose primary allegiance should be to the urgings of their imagination.

A number of Soviet works of fiction recently translated and published in this country show the extent to which Sinyavsky’s plea of twenty years ago has been acted upon by Soviet writers. They illustrate as well the limits of such a position in a country where reality continues to create and impose conditions that far outstrip the capacity of the imagination for the “absurd and fantastic.”

Ilya Suslov’s novel, Here’s to your Health, Comrade Shifrin!,1 takes us from the years just before Stalin’s death until the late 1960′s. Through a series of satirical episodes, Suslov describes the gradual disillusionment with Soviet society of one Tolya Shifrin. Tolya moves in the book through high school and college, employment in a printing shop and then in a publishing house, finally landing a job on the editorial staff of a newspaper. All the while he encounters the small lies and hypocrisies of everyday Moscow life: in high school, the students know they can regurgitate the copybook slogans of Soviet propaganda in order to insure high grades; in the printing shop, the system of production norms invites manipulation of the accounting books which, with a little bribery, the cost controller can then fix.

Suslov’s targets are not always trivial. As a young man, Tolya genuinely believes the party line, and the most effective parts of the book—they may constitute a genuine confession by the author—are about Tolya’s gullibility. “To us [the Kremlin] was a great mystery; we knew only that Stalin lived there. When we would walk past the Kremlin and see a lighted window, someone invariably would say with love and respect, ‘stalin is working.’ We thought that Stalin never slept; there was always a lighted window in the Kremlin.” There is more pathos than irony in this, for when Tolya is denied entrance to the university because he is a Jew he firmly believes that “if only [Stalin] knew what kind of scoundrels he had under him, he would let them have it.” When Stalin dies, Tolya even fears that “Russia will perish without him.”

Suslov’s book is valuable for its accurate recall of both the fearful and the comic aspects of life in Russia, but his anecdotes lack internal coherence and he has no particular point to make other than the rather ordinary one that Soviet life does not measure up to its self-proclaimed image. His style ranges from the nervous and manic (when he is trying to be humorous) to the melodramatic (as in the short, serious encounter Tolya has with an old Jewish woman at the height of the Doctors’ Plot affair). When Suslov tries to deal with genuinely sinister topics, his powers as a satirist understandably desert him, and he becomes earnest and solemn; the result, however, is a curiously soft and unconvincing evocation of something the author obviously feels deeply about and wishes mightily (but vainly) to convey to his reader.

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Among Soviet writers, only Solzhenitsyn has been able to to give literary expression both to hatred of Stalin (in Solzhenitsyn’s case it is a hatred bordering on contempt) and to the feeling of awe which Stalin exacted among many Russians. In the famous portrait of the dictator in The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn creates a figure of absolute vanity and evil, whose paranoia and intellectual pretense, however absurd they are made to seem, still carry the scent of death. In contrast to Solzhenitsyn, the satirist Vladimir Voinovich, in The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,2 takes nothing about Stalin seriously, not even those events and institutions associated with his regime, whose very mention is usually enough to evoke feelings of revulsion and dread in the average reader.

The hero of the book, Ivan Chonkin, is an insult to the Red Army. Short, bow-legged, with red ears, he cannot even salute properly. When a disabled military aircraft is forced to land on a collective farm, Chonkin, the most dispensable man at the base, is sent to guard the plane. His first night there he moves in with Nyura, the village postmistress, and, forgotten by the army, assumes a new, comfortable life among the animals, drunkards, and charlatans who inhabit the place.

Voinovich has created a masterly collection of lunatics: Golubev, the kolkhoz chairman, who believes that anyone he sees in a uniform has been sent to arrest him; Granny Dunya, whose home brew and instinct for hoarding keep everyone off balance; Borka, the pig, who drives Chonkin mad with jealousy; Gladishev, the crackpot agronomist, who devotes himself to breeding “a plant which would grow the tubers Voinovich has created a masterly collection of lunatics: Golubev, the kolkhoz chairman, who believes that anyone he sees in a uniform has been sent to arrest him; Granny Dunya, whose home brew and instinct for hoarding keep everyone off balance; Borka, the pig, who drives Chonkin mad with jealousy; Gladishev, the crackpot agronomist, who devotes himself to breeding “a plant which would grow the tubers of a potato on the bottom at the same time as tomatoes grow from the top.”

Yet Voinovich’s satire extends beyond these essentially comic-opera aspects of Soviet life to such grisly subjects as forced collectivization, the secret police, Hitler’s invasion of Russia, and Stalin himself. Thus, at a class in political training, Chonkin asks the instructor if Stalin once had two wives. The instructor denounces him for lack of ideological vigilance, and his question remains unanswered until later, in a dream, the instructor appears to inform Chonkin that “Stalin never had any wives because he himself is a woman.” At this moment Stalin descends from the sky with moustache and pipe, wearing a dress.

Other Soviet writers, like Sinyavsky in The Makepeace Experiment, for example, or Yuli Daniel, have written effective satire of Soviet personalities and institutions. But Voinovich has added a new dimension, trying to match the truly monstrous aspects of Soviet history by creating satire of equally extravagant proportions, as when he has Stalin make an entrance as a drag queen. Yet it cannot be said that Voinovich’s satire has altogether succeeded in confronting the full criminality of Soviet history. When his imagination touches evil, it instinctively retreats—as if Voinovich were determined to stand history on its head and have a laugh at it, but then get out from under before it crashes down on top of him.

Voinovich’s short new book, The Ivankiad,3 returns to the more manageable subjects of Soviet satire. Based on personal experience, it has to do with housing difficulties in Moscow, and in particular with the efforts of one Ivanko, a spoiled Soviet diplomat, to expand his four-room apartment in order to accommodate an American toilet. For the narrator (Voinovich), whose own attempt to secure an apartment has been frustrated by this turn of events, Ivanko is an exemplar of the new Soviet man, a figure who is neither “a dogmatist” nor “an orthodox person” but a “humble drudge” who “under the guise of struggling against alien ideology” (namely capitalism), is all the while trying to get something from you: “an apartment, a wife, a cow, an invention, a position, an academic title.” In the end the narrator triumphs, but only after months of frantic effort. His story is both hilarious and instructive; not only does Voinovich tell it well, embellishing it with the elements of fantasy that characterize Chonkin, but in so doing he also exposes a set of attitudes that permeate the life of Soviet citizens more thoroughly than repression itself.

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If, as the examples of Suslov and Voinovich suggest, the satiric impulse tends to founder when it comes to the beastlier aspects of Soviet reality, this is not to say that only a strict adherence to the canons of classical realism can adequately convey in art the “truth” of Soviet experience (although the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, especially in Cancer Ward and The First Circle, constitutes a powerful argument to that effect). The fact of the matter, as Sinyavsky knew when he wrote his 1956 essay “On Socialist Realism,” is that Soviet writers have had little exposure to the post-realist school of modernist writing in the West—Kafka has only recently been translated and published, while Joyce has yet to appear “officially.” A handful of Russian novelists, including Andrei Bely and Boris Pilnyak, have written genuinely modernist books, refashioning narrative into unconventional progressions and shaping language to express abnormal forms of consciousness, but their work is not published in the Soviet Union today, and as a consequence Russian writers find it difficult to explore those alternatives to realism which have evolved within their own literary culture.

Given these circumstances, Sasha Sokolov’s first novel, School for Fools,4 is all the more impressive an achievement. The principal narrator of the book is a former student at a special school for psychotic children. His reminiscences, told in the form of inner dialogues between his two selves, provide the occasion for an exploration of the linguistic consequences of schizophrenia. In whole sections of the book a natural sense of time collapses; characters have two names, and incongrous associations appear, develop, and then vanish, only to reemerge later on.

If School for Fools can be said to have a plot in any conventional sense, it revolves around these inner dialogues of the schizophrenic student, who remains nameless throughout. For a number of years he and his parents have spent their summer vacation at a dacha in the countryside. His father is a prosecutor who passes whole days in a hammock, reading newspapers. He cannot tolerate “relatives or disorder, because wherever there’s disorder there’s drinking.” Sometimes he makes his son rewrite “the lead articles from newspapers, so that we would have a better understanding of internal and external polyticks.” His son, though, dislikes newspapers and in one of several explicitly political episodes in the book the father and son have the following conversation:

And then I asked father about the newspapers. What about the newspapers?—he responded. And I said: you’re always reading newspapers. Yes, I do, he replied, I read newspapers, and so what. Isn’t it true that there’s nothing written there?—I asked him. Why do you say that, said father, everything is written there, whatever is needed—is written. And if, I asked, something is written there, then why read it: it’s scoundrels that write it. And then father said: what scoundrels? And I replied: those who write. Father asked: write what? And I replied: the newspapers.

The son does not want to be reconciled with his father. From his geography teacher, who has become his mentor, he learns “how never to lie about anything.” This teacher, Pavel or Savel Norvegov (his names are the Russian versions of Paul and Saul) is the second principal character of the novel. The prosecutor, as well as the other parents and his own colleagues at school, dislike him intensely (among other things, for keeping a weathervane on his roof). “Pavel is a free man, a dreamer,” the father says. “He’s going to die with his feet bare. He’s an idler, your Pavel.” Sitting on the window sill in the school bathroom, Norvegov delivers to his students a series of extraordinary sermons and parables that underline and extend the implicit identification of this character with the founding figures of Christianity:

My dears, you might not believe me, your goatish, retired drummer, cynic, and troublemaker, wind-driver and windvane, but believe the other person in me—the indigent citizen and poet who came in order to enlighten, to cast a spark into hearts and minds, so that people would be enflamed with hatred and a zeal for freedom. Now I shout with all my blood, the way one shouts of vengeance to come: there is nothing in the world, there is nothing in the world—except The Wind!

School for Fools defies classification. In part, it is a love story, in part it is a book about madness and dissociation and their effect on memory. Yet whether its focus is psychological, romantic, or political, Russian readers of School for Fools will no doubt remember most of all its linguistic and narrative innovations, the way in which Sokolov has turned the language of everyday conversation into a witty, subtle, and dynamic collage of imagery and rhetoric, and its plea on behalf of freedom.

School for Fools defies classification. In part, it is a love story, in part it is a book about madness and dissociation and their effect on memory. Yet whether its focus is psychological, romantic, or political, Russian readers of School for Fools will no doubt remember most of all its linguistic and narrative innovations, the way in which Sokolov has turned the language of everyday conversation into a witty, subtle, and dynamic collage of imagery and rhetoric, and its plea on behalf of freedom. School for Fools does not ignore historical reality. One character, Academician Acatov, is a botanist who spent years in a labor camp for propounding a theory that contradicted the prevailing dogma. Near the end of the novel, the author himself interrupts the narrative to speculate upon what will happen if his book should reach the authorities: “There will be great unpleasantness for me, up to and including the most unpleasant. I’m afraid they’ll immediately ship me off there. . . .” In addition, the book is suffused with a semi-playful iconoclasm toward the symbols of Soviet authority. So it is hardly coincidental that the father who contributes to his son’s schizophrenia is a prosecutor, or that the child’s hero is a barefoot geography teacher who preaches freedom and abandonment. Yet Sokolov’s novel is not didactic, nor does it “succumb to the temptation of the truth,” in Sinyavsky’s phrase. Rather, in School for Fools Sokolov resolves the dilemma facing today’s Soviet writer by making historical truth successfully serve the needs of the imagination.

Although Sokolov left the Soviet Union almost two years ago, manuscript copies of his novel are known to be circulating there. It will be interesting to see how his talent develops in the West, now that he has escaped from the oppressive society that paradoxically nurtured his creative energy. For many Soviet writers, the more relaxed political atmosphere of the West, with its physical comforts and easy distractions, tends to reduce the anxious need to create that was the hallmark of their intellectual life in Moscow. Some, like Suslov or Voinovich—the former is already in the West, the latter still in Russia—who seem inextricably connected to the specific details of Soviet life, may be compelled to seek new themes and styles. In the case of Sokolov, a writer whose imagination appears less dependent on his immediate surroundings, emigré life, far from draining his creative energy, may offer new inspiration to an already distinctive and original talent.


Footnotes

1 Translated by Maxine Bronstein, Indiana University Press, 204 pp., $8.95.

2 Translated by Richard Lourie, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 316 pp., $10.00.

3 Translated by David Lapeza, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 132 pp., $10.00.

4 Translated by Carl Proffer, Ardis, 228 pp., $10.00.

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