The Dialectics of the Transition Period from Nowhere to Nothing (Dialektika Perehodnogo Perioda iz Niotkuda v Nikuda)
“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 about Druzhnikov and the writing of Angels. Because before he wrote it, he was doing all right. He was the author of several books, the host of a weekly radio program, a member of the Soviet Writers’ Union. He was already, by his own account, unhappy, his work was not always published, and the work that was published was severely edited and puffed up with quotes from Marx and Lenin. Yet he could probably have gone on that way for some time. Instead, he wrote Angels. In the course of doing so he entered the burgeoning dissident movement, met with other writers, read his work-in-progress aloud at gatherings—and was duly excluded from the Union, removed from libraries, and blacklisted. He was denied medical attention at his former clinic. One person went to jail for possessing a copy of the Angels manuscript.
And after all that, the book didn’t even make a splash. Druzhnikov wasn’t then, and is not now, well known. His biography is odd, as if someone had taken a typical dissident-novelist curriculum vitae and fiddled with the numbers. On October 8, 1977, the Writers’ Union expelled the famous dissident writers Vassily Aksyonov, Vladimir Voinovich, and Lev Kopelev …and Druzhnikov. Aksyonov and Voinovich’s manuscripts went abroad and were published, along with those of Andrei Bitov, Fazil Iskander, Sasha Sokolov, and Edward Limonov, by Ardis Press in Michigan, which also published Nabokov in Russian. Druzhnikov’s smuggled manuscript (on micro-film, inside a pack of cigarettes, by an American professor) wasn’t published until 1989, and by the significantly less prestigious Russian-language publishing house Liberty, in New York. Aksyonov and Voinovich and Sokolov and even Limonov were all living in the West by 1981—Druzhnikov had to tough it out in the USSR until 1987, when he was finally asked to leave.
Why did he write it? Not for laughs. Though in intention Angels is a satire, in execution it is a long realist novel with a sarcastic narrator. The book does not pretend to reveal much about the mechanisms of repression or propaganda; its venom is sooner directed toward what the Soviets called “personal histories,” the endless paper trail each citizen, like some perpetual college applicant, accumulated to prove that at every stage of life he had been faithful to the cause. In a country built on lies, these were the lies you had to remember from one application to the next.
Druzhnikov’s implicit contention is that simply revealing the truth of the lives beneath these “histories” is enough. Throughout Angels, the introduction of each new character stalls the novel’s momentum by devoting a chapter to his or her actual story. So when we first catch a glimpse of Makartsev’s secretary, Anna, we immediately get eight pages on “The Joys and Sorrows of Anna Lokotkova,” in which we learn that the attractive but aging Anna has been mistreated by men throughout her life, that she is in love with Makartsev, that she has been waiting for years now for a sign from him. Then back to the narrative, and we don’t see much of Anna again. These character-sketch chapters—there are nineteen of them and they take up about a third of the book—are intelligent, and in their way subversive, but for all that Druzhnikov does to keep them moving, the stories are mostly too sad to be funny, and the jokes too bitter.
Did Druzhnikov think that his lengthy manuscript would land on a desk in the Kremlin and give the Soviet leadership a collective heart attack? Maybe he did, and given the authorities’ hysterical reaction to printed matter this wasn’t an entirely unreasonable supposition. In any case it’s not the worst reason to write a book. It kept Druzhnikov going for seven years and nearly six hundred pages, amid physical threats and threats to his livelihood, with no hope of publication in his native land.
It also warped his sense of what literature could and should try to do. His novel has not aged well. Its anger, its edginess, and the obvious courage of its composition are now of merely historical interest. In his other writings on contemporary themes, Druzhnikov has been what one might call a hard-line dissident, inflexibly critical of those, like the novelist Yuri Trifonov, who were too weak or too greedy to join the anti-Soviet fight. Yet the one truly inspired character in Angels is not a dissident hero, à la Druzhnikov, but a cynical and corpulent editor named Yakov Rappoport. Drained of all his ideals by years in a labor camp followed by years of ghostwriting speeches and articles, Rappoport is a genuine late-Soviet type. He does not think truth can be mined and extracted and presented whole and immutable to the world. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says to a man who’s brought a manuscript to the newspaper. “Everything we print in this newspaper is crap. What you’ve written is also crap. But it isn’t the kind of crap that we print.”
In retrospect, it feels as if in the late Seventies the ship of Soviet state was already leaking through so many holes. Stagnation, Afghanistan, television images of the West, the price war with OPEC—any one of these could have sunk her. And then there were the Moscow Conceptualists. These were the writers around the poets Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, and Timur Kibirov, who, influenced by the visual-art work of Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, practiced a Soviet version of Pop Art, adopting the stale forms of socialist realism as the face whose cheek they slapped. Sots-Art, as it was christened by Komar and Melamid, was not so much anti-Soviet as un-Soviet; it did not so much do battle with communism as appropriate it to its humor. Occasionally it pretended, as dissident literature could never have done, that the USSR simply wasn’t there. Perhaps it only pretended to pretend. Either way, because it was not in direct tension with the regime, and was in line with Western movements in the arts, it seemed to intelligent observers that Conceptualism would outlast that regime. And its only real prose writer, and resident genius, its hope for producing a great Russian novel, was Vladimir Sorokin.
Sorokin’s work from the early 1980s—particularly his first two novels, The Queue (Ochered’) and The Norm (Norma)—are, or should be, landmarks of international postmodern fiction. The Queue, the only one of his novels to be translated fully into English, is about people waiting in line for an unidentified leather or suede object. It is written exclusively in unattributed dialogue. “Excuse me, citizen,” it begins, “are you last?”
—I think so. But there’s a woman in a blue coat, she’s behind me.
—So I’m behind her.
—Right. She’ll be back in a minute. But stand behind me for now.
—Will you be here?
—I’ll just be gone a second, literally.
—It’d be better, I think, if you waited. Or else people will come, what will I tell them? Wait. She said she’d be quick.
—All right. I’ll wait. Have you been here long?
The novel continues this way for two hundred pages and two days of waiting in line. The page moves, so to speak, up and down the line, so that we catch snatches of conversations, while here and there different characters come into focus. People fall in love, and betray one another; they leave the line and return; one citizen (“a great strategist,” another calls him) maneuvers a portion of the line over a city block so that everyone can buy some kvass. We witness Vadim, a young editor, share two bottles of vodka with some other gentlemen, become very drunk, lose his place in line, start a fight, and then pass out—all in unattributed dialogue. At another point a list of names is taken down so that people can leave the line for a few hours, and the roll call (“—Arbuzova!—Here!—Kiprensky!—Here!—Zamusovich! No. Out…. Vlasina!—Here!”) lasts thirty-five pages. We never learn what they’re waiting for—at different points it appears to be shoes, coats, and leather bags—but we do finally determine that whatever it is, it’s American. The news is well received.