East Is East

Petrovka 38

by Julian Semyonov, translated by Michael Scammel
Stein & Day, 205 pp., $4.95

Island of Salvation

by Wlodzimierz Odojewski, translated by David Welsh
Harcourt Brace & World, 248 pp., $4.75

A Sitter for a Satyr

by George Andrzeyevski, translated by Celina Wieniewska
Dutton, 190 pp., $3.95

Ward 7

by Valeriy Tarsis, translated by Katya Brown
Dutton, 159 pp., $3.50

The Ice Age

by Tamas Acezl
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $5.95

Postwar Polish Poetry

selected and translated by Czeslaw Milosz
Doubleday, 148 pp., $4.95

If there is one quality which holds this collection of novels together it is, with one exception, a certain lack of distinction. In a way, it is consoling to know that the same old humdrum sensibilities tick away in fiction on either side of the iron curtain, that mediocrity in the East is essentially no different from mediocrity in the West, that things are as gloomy and evasions as commonplace there as here. The only miracle is that, judging from the blurbs and dust-jackets, these novels have been taken so seriously west of the border; I suppose it is a sign of the cultural détente.

Julian Semyonov’s Petrovka 38, for instance, is labeled “the first thriller out of Russia” and comes armed with puffs from the British pop press. It is, in fact, simply a leaden-footed cops-and-robbers set in modern Moscow: a group of dogged policemen, beset by overwork and harassing marriages, versus a couple of young hoodlums and their elderly master-mind. The cops are all good guys, though some of their colleagues are not and they often find themselves curiously unpopular with the general public. Conversely, the robbers are all bad guys, with the exception of a mixed-up young poet who gets in on the act by mistake; the strong-arm man is one of the new-style hooligans, all sex and smart clothes; his mentor is the spolled son of a late side-kick of Beria’s; the master-mind is a dope-peddling sadist with counter-revolutionary tendencies. Politically, it is all very convenient. The book does shed a little light on the bonedom of the young generation and their rather earnest pursuit of delinquency; it also offers some mild criticism of the rigidity of Soviet mores and the official reluctance to allow the young to be young. Otherwise, it seems that new stilyag is but old hero writ large.

Wlodzimierz Odojewski’s Island of Salvation is equally insipid, though in a different, more tiresome way. It is one of those sensitive studies of adolescence in a world turned upside down. In 1942 a young man, teetering on the edge of his virginity, goes back to his grandparents’ country house in Eastern Poland. The Soviets have been through, the Nazis are in, and the local Ukranian terrorists are on the rampage. You would scarcely guess it, for nothing really shakes the calm of that old aristocratic mansion, overgrown with wisteria and sensibility. The servants remain obsequious and the decorum impeccable, though something nasty has happened in the orangery and the terrorist leader turns out to be the hero’s bastard half-brother. Perhaps it is all supposed to be an allegory of the responsibility of the old Polish gentry for the horrors that befell their country. Or perhaps it is simply a vast nostalgia for a Poland that is dead, dead as Nabokov’s Russia. Either way, it is hard to tell, since Odojewski’s sub-Proustian sentences ramble like the shrubbery in his grandfather’s park.

George Andrzeyevski’s A Sitter for a Satyr is a far more satisfying and talented…

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