Angels on the Head of a Pin
by Yuri Druzhnikov, translated from the Russian by Thomas Moore
Peter Owen/UNESCO, 566 pp., $37.95
by Vladimir Sorokin
Moscow: Ad Marginem, 317 pp.
The Dialectics of the Transition Period from Nowhere to Nothing (Dialektika Perehodnogo Perioda iz Niotkuda v Nikuda)
by Viktor Pelevin
Moscow: Eksmo, 384 pp.
“The Europeans look at us like we’re shit, like we’re animals!” Vovchik the Small, one of Victor Pelevin’s angst-ridden mobsters, declares in the 1999 Generation P. “It’s because we don’t have a national i-den-ti-ty.” Vovchik may as well have been speaking of Pelevin’s writerly colleagues. What began as a wonderful new start for artistic freedom—with Pelevin, in his first major publication, dismissing the dissident movement with a reference to “various Solzhenitsyns”—has become, instead, a continuous existential headache. Some have abandoned the craft entirely, others have begun to write for politicians and the movies, while still others have taken the prophetic leanings of the older generation in unexpected directions—the repatriated memoirist Edward Limonov, for one, recently left prison after serving two years for the illegal purchase of some Kalashnikov rifles. On the more serious charge, of plotting to invade Kazakhstan, he was acquitted.
The appearance at this late date of Yuri Druzhnikov’s Angels on the Head of a Pin feels like a slightly garbled message from a rejected literary path. Druzhnikov (b. 1933) was certainly one of Pelevin’s Solzhenitsyns, and his reasons for writing this in many ways very “literary” novel can only be puzzling twenty-five years after its completion and more than a decade after the regime it purported to lampoon collapsed.
Angels is a satire on a large Soviet newspaper, based on Druzhnikov’s own experience as a journalist and editor. It opens with Party boss Igor Makartsev, editor in chief of Trudovaya Pravda (“The Laborers’ Truth”), keeling over with a heart attack as he leaves the newspaper office one winter evening in 1969. Angels then goes on to describe two months in the life of TP during a time of increased ideological pressure—it is not long after tanks were sent to crush the Prague Spring, not to mention sunshine, girls with flowers in their hair, and rock-and-roll.
Makartsev’s replacement as editor is a sinister, hard-line KGB man who begins right away to establish order in the wake of the old-fashioned Makartsev. Some of the newspaper staff attempt to resist, but this is futile. Meanwhile, Makartsev’s home life goes into precipitous decline, and as the novel continues it also moves backward in time to discover the cause of his heart attack. This turns out to have been the appearance, on his desk, of a samizdat translation of the Marquis de Custine’s famously caustic travelogue, Russia in 1839. Despite his high position, Makartsev finds himself paralyzed with worry. Was it planted? Should he ignore it? Call the KGB? He decides to take a look at the thing, and this only makes matters worse: “After reading the book…he felt he could no longer think the way he had before.”
The idea that one book could send a candidate for membership in the Central Committee of the Communist Party into a paroxysm of doubt, and then the hospital, is touching, and it explains a great deal …