Laughter in the Dark

The Radiant Future

by Alexander Zinoviev, translated by Gordon Clough
Random House, 287 pp., $13.95

Sans Illusions

by Alexander Zinoviev, translated by Wladimir Berelowitch
L'Age d'Homme, Lausanne, 150 pp., 36.50 francs

Alexander Zinoviev
Alexander Zinoviev; drawing by David Levine

Though it deserved all the praise it got, The Yawning Heights was nevertheless of a size bound to tell against its long-term fortune. Its successor, The Radiant Future, treats the same themes at about half the length. It would be nice to think that Zinoviev had now, after recovering from the initial impact of leaving the Soviet Union for the West, struck his true sense of proportion. Telling against this wish, however, is the awkward fact that we have not yet even got to the end of what he produced before being expelled from the Soviet Union, and the further fact that from his mighty output there are at least two more behemoths on the way.

L’Antichambre du Paradis, a satirical treatment of the Soviet psychiatric hospitals, is of the same dimensions as The Yawning Heights: presumably its appearance in English will be not long delayed. Beyond that, and looming rather than hiding, there is a two-volume blockbuster which at the time of writing has not yet appeared even in French, but whose Russian title might perhaps be translated as The Yellow House. (Apparently the French translation will be called La Maison de fous.) In Dom Knigi, the marvelous Russian bookshop in Paris, I saw a copy of this last-mentioned whopper lying spine-up on the counter and can remember letting out a discreet groan. The man’s books generate themselves like yogurt. One continues to be grateful, but with trepidation.

For The Radiant Future one’s gratitude is unalloyed. It is nearer than The Yawning Heights to being an ordinary narative and is thus easier for the reader to follow. There is a central character to get interested in and care about, even though he is not very likable. The central character is the narrator, head of the Department of Theoretical Problems of the Methodology of Scientific Communism. (The department’s offices are in the Yellow House, which suggests that Zinoviev’s forthcoming works might link up in more than just a thematic way to the ones we know already.) The narrator’s career as a philosopher has some resemblance to Zinoviev’s own, and indeed it is possible that an element of self-hatred has been incorporated. Zinoviev has good reason to be proud of his achievements as a dissident, but he seems very slow in forgiving himself for his career as a Soviet academic. According to one of the cardinal principles of The Yawning Heights, it is impossible to flourish, or even grow up, in the Soviet Union while still retaining a moral sense. Therefore almost anybody you have ever heard of is automatically reprehensible.

This principle would be intolerably strict if Zinoviev did not in the first instance apply it to himself, and more rigorously than to anyone else. The Radiant Future, I think, is clear evidence that he does so. The book has an expiatory quality that gives it a dimension missing from Theā€¦

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