The Makepeace Experiment
by Abram Tertz, translated by Manya Harari
Pantheon Books, 192 pp., $3.95
This latest novelette by the gifted writer who uses the pseudonym “Abram Tertz” is the chronicle of certain fantastic events in the small town of Lyubimov, lost somewhere in the forests and marshes of Russia. The record is made by the elderly Savely Kuzmich Proferansov, who takes his position of historian very seriously and writes, passing freely from first person to third, in a wonderful mixture of slang, chattiness, and solemn bureaucratese—a style that, in its pretense of unconscious humor, reminds one of Gogol at his comic best and is as difficult to render as Gogol’s. The translation does not do it justice, but as with Gogol and Pushkin and Chekhov and Pasternak and other fine writers, it is worth reading even so. Better read them in inadequate versions than not at all, and Abram Tertz especially, for he is obliged to address himself to a foreign audience, since he cannot be published in his own country. His work is smuggled out, and its French, Italian, and English translations are easier to get hold of than the original Russian. It is good that this can be done and that his identity is a well-kept secret. Otherwise, literature might suffer another irreparable casualty. For Tertz would certainly be irritating to the panjandrums of the U.S.S.R. They would find him irreverent, wrong-headed, dangerously entertaining, and unrealistic.
What, for example, is one to make of the events in Lyubimov? And why, indeed, bother to write such nonsense? There, on the First of May, 1958—the date is given in the first of many footnotes which, following the example of other historians, our Chronicler has decided to supply, for the convenience of the reader, as he explains, who can descend to the bottom of the page, if he wishes, catch his breath, and “inform himself about details or something else,” or if he “hasn’t the time, or must get the main point as quickly as possible,” may “skip over these little secondary references” and race on to his heart’s content as fast as he pleases—in 1958, then, the festive proceedings on the First of May are suddenly brought to a halt by Comrade Tishchenko, Secretary of the Town Party Committee, who, extending his right arm, stops the Parade to make an announcement. He is giving up his post, stepping down in favor of Leonard Makepeace, thus bringing an old era to its close and inaugurating a new one. Who is Makepeace? Why Makepeace? One lone villager who ventures to inquire is quickly silenced, while a two-month-old infant, swaddled in his mother’s arms, wakes up and squeals: “I wish…I demand that Lenny Makepeace become Tsar over our city.” He is seconded by the populace with wild acclaim; and thus selected, Lenny Makepeace, a cross-eyed little man who lives with his mother and repairs bicycles, steps forth from the crowd and modestly accepts his new role: “Brother Comrades…I am simply not worthy of your kindness …