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It Happened in Lyubimov

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. But if you wish it and even demand it, there is nothing for me to do but give my reluctant consent. I shall be your servant, by the will of the people, and, I beg you, no sequel to the personality cult. Let the posts of Minister of Justice, Defense, and Internal Affairs remain also in my hands for the time being. Of course, the State is a dying concept, but neither, brothers, can we do without control, can we?”

Lenny is of proletarian origin, but somewhere in his background, on his mother’s side, there is a remarkable aristocratic ancestor, Samson Samsonovich Proferansov, of whom Savely Kuzmich is also a descendant, and whose biography he inserts in Chapter Five of his Chronicle. Samson Samsonovich’s activity extended, in defiance of chronology, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. A friend of Lavoisier, of Tsar Nicholas I, of Leo Tolstoy, he married his cook and childhood friend Arina Rodionovna, Pushkin’s renowned old nurse. Yearning to discover the meaning of life, he traveled to India, where he mastered the science of magnetism, and on his deathbed was about to reveal his discovery: “Tell Lavoisier, inform Lev Tolstoy, we made a great mistake in our calculations. The meaning of existence consists not in that…but in that…” The sentence, unfortunately, was left unfinished; but even in death, Samson Samsonovich exercised his magic on Lyubimov and its inhabitants. His manuscript on magnetism, bound in thick leather and sequestered in the Makepeace house with all kinds of forgotten trash, comes toppling down on Lenny, when an old shelf collapses, narrowly missing his temple. Lenny becomes absorbed in the volume, memorizes it—while reading at the same time Engels’s Dialectics of Nature—and derives from it extraordinary powers. At his will, Savely Kuzmich stands on his head before him and finds this posture entirely natural; the formerly unapproachable Serafima Patrovna falls in love with him and marries him; he changes mineral water into hard liquor, makes the town river flow with champagne, transforms pickles into sausages, toothpaste into fish, baked potatoes into downy peaches. He keeps enemies at bay by remote control, directing against them the lightning energy of his volition, and, at a crucial moment, causes the whole town of Lyubimov to disappear before the army that advances against it. He is tireless in his efforts to raise “the material and cultural level” of his people, to cure them of greed and rouse their patriotism. He instills in them the wish to transfer their personal property to the commune, and he does away with money, papering his rooms with 100-ruble bills. “Heads higher!” he exhorts his laborers. “Shoulders back! Smile! Sing! Remember, no one forces you to work. It’s you who want to overfulfill your norm by two hundred percent.” The people are happy and Lenny alone (like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor) is bowed down under the burden of their wills, which he has taken upon himself. And there are moments when the Chronicler must struggle to preserve his identity, feeling himself a mere instrument, possessed by Samson Samsonovich, his pen guided by this ancestor through the force of Lenny’s will.

Nevertheless, Lenny is not omnipotent—his magnetic powers extend only within the radius of thirty kilometers; neither, despite appearances, is he omniscient. And presently, all is lost. His people turn against him: what use is he with his black magic, if he can’t produce rain when it’s needed? He becomes the bogey-man with which old crones frighten children into good behavior. His wife, whom he has driven to the verge of madness by his neglect and jealousy, absconds with another man and some 5000 rubles of his wallpaper; Savely Kuzmich takes leave to write his book; his one remaining friend, Kochetov by name—it happens also to be the name of a well known reactionary Soviet writer and sycophant—who had first come as a spy and then remained as a follower, is run over by an enemy tank; and all the inhabitants of Lyubimov secrete themselves in hideouts as the enemy approaches. Finally, the abandoned Makepeace makes his exit, an insignificant stowaway, concealed among the creates of a baggage train. “Never in his life had he felt so free and so cozy. The burden of power, the torments of love, worries about the future, memory of the past—all was falling away.” Fate, he knows, will provide him another’s passport, a corner of earth to make his home, and a bicycle shop to exercise his skill and make a living. Stripped of power and all external attributes, the lonely little ex-Dictator hugs himself, taking comfort in the warmth of his trouser pockets, glad of anonymity and the prospect of survival.

He had held sway so long as Samson Samsonovich supported him, until the magic book vanished as mysteriously as it had once arrived, from the safe in which it was kept. “Ah, Lenny, Lenny,” the Chronicler had mused, “you think that having inherited Proferansov’s manuscript and mastered the gentry’s A.B.C.” all is clear sailing. But no; the ways of former despotism, however enlightened, scientific, and filled with benevolent love of humanity, will not do any more.

In this modern, sophisticated version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” power is shown to be illusion, either the ruler’s illusion or that of his subjects. When Lenny first changes water into wine, “Yes,” we are told, “a miracle was performed…that is, in reality, somewhere in its depths of being, the water remained the same Kharkov water it had always been…. But its role, its social function had changed, and so its effect on the feelings of the drinker.” Makepeace himself was amazed to discover that one man had drunk himself to death on his dubious wine. Toward the end, however, when his might has ebbed away, illusions are of a different order. Lenny new experiences a brief moment when his power of suggestion is intensified a hundredfold: “What a witch!” he thinks of an old woman, “Will she really fly into the air on her broomstick?” And she does. “What a bull!” he thinks of a huge man, and behold, the man paws the ground with his hoof and butts passersby with his horns. “Drop dead!” thinks Lenny, and men drop dead. Here, too, wishes are fulfilled, the wishes of a weakened Dictator, as once those of his people had been fulfilled. But just as the water that had become wine remained, in essence, water, and only its social function had changed, and just as Lyubimov was always there, even though the enemy could not see it, so now, the men and women metamorphosed, or killed in Lenny’s mind, surely remain as they were, though not to him. Miracles are at once illusion and reality, the illusion of belief, the reality of desire.

The satire is unmistakable; many topical allusions are clear even to Western readers, and there are probably many more that escape us and would be obvious to those in Soviet Russia. But it is not these contemporary references that are the merit of the story. Some day, as with Voltaire’s Candide, they will require scholarly elucidation, and like Candide the story will live on, apart from them. Voltaire used his humane common sense, his characteristically eighteenth-century rationality to ridicule Leionitzian optimism; Tertz, in the light of twentieth-century knowledge of man’s complexity, of the depth and deviousness of unconscious drives and the strength of willed desire, makes fun of dialectical materialism. In Engels’s Dialectics Makepeace finds confirmation of Samson Samsonovich’s Indian Magnetism; if “consciousness,” as Engels says, “is the highest product of matter,” then consciousness can be manipulated as matter is manipulated, and a simple mechanic can become an engineer of souls. So it seems; but actually the reverse is true. What happens is that, under pressure of the will, it is not matter that becomes consciousness, but consciousness matter; materialism is stood on its head, Tertz having done to Marx what Marx once did to Hegel.

The concluding chapter of The Makepeace Experiment might indeed lead one to suppose that there is something more in life than matter and dialectics. The Conclusion is threefold; the glimpse of little Lenny departing on his freight train is, as it were, the central panel of a triptych. On one side of it there is another image: his devout old mother, whom he had once persuaded that there was no God, manages somehow to drag herself some fifty miles through forest land to seek out Father Ignatius, bringing him three rubles and a little cottage cheese wrapped in a clean rag to pay for two services, one for Leonard, Servant of God, and one for the soul of the deceased Samson Samsonovich. And Father Ignatius invokes God’s mercy on the faithless, the “lawless blasphemers” of his Holy Name. “Our Father,” he concludes his prayers, “forgive the parents for the sake of their innocent babes. Our Father, let the tears of mothers redeem the sins of their children.” Three or four old women attend the service in his decrepit little church at the edge of the world. “How do they live? What do they breathe? Where do they get the strength to come creeping all the way here? What are they for and who needs them?” The third panel is a prayer by another man to another spirit, the address to Samson Samsonovich by the Chronicler, who, although he had seemed to realize the inadequacy of the old magician’s ways, is lost without him and now begs him to return and restore “our Lenny Makepeace, our Tsar,” concluding on a pitiful, personal note:

I told you a lie when I said things were not as bad as they might be. The fact is, they couldn’t be worse. The investigation continues. Any moment there will be a new wave of arrests. If they search the house and find this manuscript under the floorboards, they’ll pick up every single one of us. Listen to me, Professor. Will you hide this wretched book for the time being? Look after it for a bit. You do recognize it as your property, don’t you?

So ends this jolly piece of mystification, in irony and pity.

Tertz is a master of the Absurd. This is evident in everything we have had from him so far: The Trial Begins, which in 1960 introduced him to the Western world; Fantastic Stories, a collection of five weird tales, written from 1955 to 1961; and The Makepeace Experiment, the subtlest and brightest of them all. A brilliant essay, On Socialist Realism, which reached Europe at the same time as The Trial Begins, concludes with the following, often quoted passage:

Right now I put my hope in a phantasmagoric art, with hypotheses instead of a Purpose, an art in which the grotesque will replace realistic descriptions of ordinary life. Such an art would correspond best to the spirit of our time. May the fantastic imagery of Hoffmann and Dostoevsky, of Goya, Chagall, and Mayakovsky (the most socialist realist of all), and of many other realists and nonrealists teach us how to be truthful with the aid of the absurd and the fantastic.

Having lost our faith, we have not lost our enthusiasm about the metamorphoses of God that take place before our very eyes, the miraculous transformations of His entrails and His cerebral convolutions. We don’t know where to go; but, realizing that there is nothing to be done about it, we start to think, to set riddles, to make assumptions. May we thus invent something marvelous? Perhaps; but it will no longer be socialist realism.

This is the rationale of Tertz’s work—all of which is an imaginative transmutation of the life he observes, a setting of riddles, and an exhibition of men’s silly efforts to confine their minds and hearts to a narrow teleology, of the tenuousness of these efforts, and the falsity of all attempts to produce art on the model of some prescribed and predigested “realism.” His own absurdities are more meaningful than any of these; and it is a pity that like his Savely Kuzmich Proferansov, he too, no doubt, must sit waiting in fear of new arrests and tremble lest his manuscript be found under the floorboards.

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