Bottoms Up

Moscow to the End of the Line

by Venedikt Erofeev, translated by H.W. Tjalsma
Taplinger, 164 pp., $8.95

Illuminations

by Tamas Aczel
Pantheon Books, 375 pp., $15.50

How, living inside a totalitarian state, do you write about it? One answer is that of Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward and The First Circle: you face it head on, making fictions almost directly out of personal experience. Other approaches, allegorical or symbolic, have landed those who made them in labor camps or mental hospitals. I don’t, however, recall any other comment on the nature of Soviet society so rawly comic as this short novel by Venedikt Erofeev.

Little is publicly known about Erofeev. He was, Vera S. Dunham tells us in her introduction, born in 1933 “in or near Moscow,” he “seems to have studied” at Moscow University, and has worked in various parts of the Soviet Union as coal stoker, janitor, railroad worker, and cable fitter. He has published nothing openly, but three works of fiction and “a parodic discourse on Russian existentialism” have appeared in samizdat form. The present book goes back to 1968, and we are told nothing about any later work. Erofeev may, as Vera Dunham says, be still winding cable today. It is also possible, since most of the information we have is derived from Erofeev himself, that it may not be true. Since he is apparently still at large, his name is presumably not Erofeev.

Moscow to the End of the Line is the record of a monumental drinking bout. The narrator, Venedikt Erofeev, otherwise Venya or Venichka, takes a train from Moscow’s Kursk Station to Petushki, the end of the line, where a real or imaginary girl is waiting for him. He is drunk when he sets out, and during the journey the drunkenness turns to total delusion and occasional delirium, so that at the end Petushki has become the Moscow from which he started; or perhaps he never set out, but was in Moscow the whole time. We leave him at the moment of his murder, but this also is presumably simply a nightmare.

Much of Venichka’s downward spiral to incoherence is purely comic, although the comedy may seem harsh in a country where alcoholism is a major problem. Take his solution of a problem known to virtually every drinker: the first five drinks are fine, and after five you are on top of the world, but from the sixth to the ninth there is a feeling of unease, the tenth is taken with eyes closed, and the eleventh is the point of no return, collapse or sleep. How can this unhappy consummation be prevented? Simple: you must drink shots six to nine “in an ideal sense—that is, drink them only in your imagination.” And then:

Having withstood the pause, take off directly on the tenth, just as with the ninth symphony of Dvorák, which is actually the ninth but conditionally called the fifth. The same with you—call your sixth your ninth and be sure that now you’ll reach maturity without hindrance, and do so from the sixth (the ninth) up to and including the twenty-eighth …

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