Fish and Roses

The Monkey Link: A Pilgrimage Novel

by Andrei Bitov, translated by Susan Brownsberger
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 373 pp., $30.00

The atmosphere of description is somehow thicker and coarser than reality. Reality does not survive being described. Either it perishes or it gains full independence. Or did it ever exist at all? At any rate, whatever you have described, your only satisfaction will be that the text is finished. There will no longer be anything to compare it with. The past has disappeared somewhere, and the very space is gone.”

The Monkey Link

Among the more alarming lines of speculation the mind may entertain while trapped in Doctor Insomnia’s waiting room is the question of what Europe would be like today if Hitler had won his war. There would be political unity of a kind, stretching from London (or even Dublin) to Sverdlovsk (or even Vladivostok), with innumerable local disturbances constantly flaring up, being suppressed, and flaring up again. The economy would be in continual crisis because of the arms race with America and the stultifying effect of ideological demands on management and workers alike. Officially, the Holocaust would not have happened unless one of Hitler’s successors had decided for his own reasons to denounce the Führer at a closed session of the Nazi Party’s annual conference; and intellectual life would be divided between the superstructure of a state-sanctioned mediocracy and the substructure of a vigorous but severely restricted, and isolated avant-garde.

As a moment’s reflection will show, of course, this is a fairly accurate description of life in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1989 (how much it has changed since 1989 is another question). How is it, then, that so many left-wing intellectuals in the West refused for so long to recognize, or acknowledge fully, the true nature of communism and the catastrophe that had befallen the countries of the USSR after Yalta? Even now there is an unwillingness, and not only on the left, to speak of Hitler and Stalin in the same breath, although Stalin was responsible for the deaths of countless more millions than Hitler was.

This lack of balance is not owing solely to the fact that history is written by the victors (and Stalin, if not his unfortunate country, was certainly a victor); it is that we require that there be only one Satan at a time, and for now Hitler is Satan for most of us. Had we, up to 1989, kept firmly before our minds the plain evidence that Stalin and his henchmen were in the same class as the Nazis, we would have had to acknowledge the intolerable fact that, after the war, while we in the West prospered, the peoples not only of Russia but also of a whole band of satellite countries in Central and Eastern Europe were living in conditions very like those that would have been in place had Hitler prevailed.

Surely it is at least partly because of this willed blindness in the West that the work of Russian writers as dissimilar as Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Bitov has the ring of …

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