Andrei Bitov
Andrei Bitov; drawing by David Levine

“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 a helpless cry of rage against the world. To have been caught in the toils of tyranny is one thing, but to have rich, powerful, and free colleagues on the far side of the barbed wire urging you to stop complaining and have patience must have been dispiriting. Dispiriting, and deeply worrying: For might not the catastrophe be in some way the fault of the very people who were suffering from its effects? As Bitov’s narrator in The Monkey Link asks rhetorically, “Had Russian literature finished, described all, or did the Revolution happen because all had been described, finished?”

Of course, frenetic feeling has always been present in Russian writing: think of Gogol, of Chernyshevsky, of Bulgakov, of Tsvetaeva; think of Dostoevsky. Yet in the generation that grew up between the end of the 1930s and the mid-1950s—in other words, under Stalinism, when, to quote Susan Brownsberger in an afterword to The Monkey Link, “the evil of the Socialist paradise [was] so banal as to be its own parody”—a coarsening effect took place. It is as if the years of combined political oppression and economic deprivation produced a general decay of sensibilities. The result, in the case of Bitov’s work, is a spirit of weariness and muffled rage, along with an anguished, self-reflexive clowning. Bitov’s books, rich in themselves, exude the smell of poverty, both material and spiritual, and a sense of mourning for the lost possibility of beauty. As the narrator of The Monkey Link puts it, “The place smelled of fish, shit, and roses.”

Andrei Bitov was born in Leningrad in 1937, and grew up there. The city and its literature permeate his writing, so much so that it might be said to be a leading character in his masterpiece, Pushkin House, a brilliant, baffling novel filled with references not only to the work of Pushkin himself, but to Russian literature in general and, in particular, to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916), another novel in which Peter’s magnificent city figures prominently. Pushkin House was written in the dark years of the late 1960s, and was completed in 1971; in 1978 it was published in the West, in the original Russian (for which treachery the writer was virtually silenced by the Soviet authorities), and in 1987 in an English translation by Susan Brownsberger. The Monkey Link comes to English-speaking readers after an equally long and tortuous journey.

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The book is composed of three parts, or “tales,” written at separate times between 1971 and 1993, a period during which, as Susan Brownsberger says, “the Soviet Union moved from peace to war to collapse.” The first tale, “Birds (Catechesis),” published in the USSR in 1976, tells of the narrator’s stay at an ornithological research station on the Kurish Spit, a narrow peninsula projecting westward into the Baltic from Kaliningrad/Königsberg and the westernmost tip of the then Soviet Empire. He had come there first in the late summer of 1968, “as if to a foreign country,” seeking refuge from the deadening atmosphere of Soviet life after the Prague Spring was crushed.

The second part, “Man in a Landscape (the Novice),” which Bitov wrote in 1983 but could not publish under the then regime of Yuri Andropov, is a long and at times tedious dialogue between the narrator and a mysterious landscape painter, whom he encounters at a restored historical site west of Moscow. Part three, “Awaiting Monkeys (Transfiguration),” dated “February 28, 1993, Forgiveness Sunday,” itself consists of three sections, “The Horse,” “The Cow,” and “Fire,” which last is in turn divided into three parts, “The Cat,” “The Monkey Link,” and “The Cock” (if this structure sounds complicated, it is nothing compared to the impenetrabilities of the tales themselves).

Most of the action of “Awaiting Monkeys”—as convoluted and hectic as a Marx Brothers movie—takes place in Azerbaijan and Georgia, at the southernmost point of the Soviet Union. Thus the geography of the book traces a line from the Baltic down past Moscow and southward almost to the Caspian Sea, then back westward across the Caucasus to the region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast. This line roughly corresponds to the final line of advance of the German armies in the Second World War, before they began to be pushed back by the Russian forces. The book is thus a sort of secret pilgrimage along the front line and “an exorcism of childhood trauma” for Bitov, who remembers being evacuated as a child from Leningrad over the ice of Lake Ladoga.

For these facts and insights I have, yet again, to thank the invaluable and devoted Susan Brownsberger. Without her afterword, “From the Translator: The Boundaries Within,” I would have found myself floundering even more than I did in the luxuriantly flowering mire of Bitov’s novel. Prospective readers, who will need all the help they can get, would do well to turn first of all to this afterword, which not only offers assistance to those of us lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history and, more importantly, literature, but can also be read as a particularly perceptive review of the book.

Bitov, in a note, praises Ms. Brownsberger, as well as his German translator, Rosemarie Tietze, who is in turn thanked for her assistance by Ms. Brownsberger; given all this acknowledgment, it seems safe to assume that Ms. Brownsberger speaks with the author’s blessing and perhaps even with his authority—although at times, especially in the detailed notes to the text, she strikes a note reminiscent of the mad Charles Kinbote’s annotations in another Russian puzzle book, Nabokov’s Pale Fire. She remarks on Bitov’s delight in “rhymes”—“seemingly accidental correspondences that give added meaning to life”—and demurely informs us that she has “included a few ‘rhymes’ from my own recollections of the century and its literature.” The result is a set of notes that veer from the studiously irrelevant to the whimsically baffling. Yet they clarify many passages by identifying sly allusions to other Russian writers of the past and present, from Pushkin to Akhmadulina.

The first tale, “Birds,” is the most successful, or at least the most approachable, since the story is relatively easy to follow and the reader has an approximate idea of what is going on, which is not always the case elsewhere in the book. The unnamed narrator, a novelist, or a journalist, or both, has come to the Kurish Spit to…well, it is hard to say precisely what he has come to do.

Supposedly, the reason I come here each time is that I’ve forever remembered what a unique place it is on this earth, and how resurrectingly wholesome it is, making no threats and imposing no demands, existing so independently of you that it doesn’t even reject you—that is, the kind of place where, in the marvelous words of Olga S. [never to be identified, by the way], “soul is miscible with body in all proportions.” That feeling is probably first love, even though expressed in the language of chemistry… Supposedly, that’s the reason I come—and each time, I forget the reason. Suddenly I’m here. This place recalls a homeland I have never seen.

In this passage, from the opening pages, we find the twin themes that lie at the heart of this “pilgrimage novel”: the search for a homeland, physical and spiritual, and the quest for selfhood, for authenticity, both private and public. However, as Bitov says in an appendix to Pushkin House, “the greatest evil, for us personally, is to live in a ready-made, explained world”* (the greatest evil?). The man who lives in a normal way desires a place in which to belong, while the artist who creates is, inevitably, and necessarily, nowhere at home. The tension between these two predicaments provides the drama of The Monkey Link. The narrator himself is unhoused within himself, and is continually appearing as separate personae. This amoeba-like spawning and splitting of the authorial self intensifies as the book progresses, and in the last tale the narrator exists and acts and speaks as both “I” and “HIM.”

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Bitov, Ms. Brownsberger tell us (and we can assume, I think, that he told her this), originally intended the novel to pose three questions: “What is man’s role in relation to other biological species? To God? To humankind?” After the events of 1991—the failed anti-Gorbachev coup and the accession to power of Boris Yeltsin—a fourth question arose: “What is a man’s role in relation to himself?” In the first tale, “Birds,” the narrator encounters Doctor D., an ornithologist, with whom he engages in long and excited dialogues on man’s place in and effect on the natural environment—conversations which later on will be complemented by his rhapsodic discussions, in the second tale, with the landscape artist Pavel Petrovich on man’s relation to God, and, in the third part, by the narrator’s internal debate with HIM on the place of the individual in society and in relation to himself.

“Green” issues are the novel’s most obvious concern (“We don’t revere nature. We revere science”). This will strike readers in the West with poignancy, particularly when we consider what we have learned since 1989 of the scandalous treatment of nature and natural resources under successive Soviet regimes—communism despises nature, but nature, as Chernobyl showed, has its own way of hitting back. In his meditations on ecology Bitov’s narrator is at once glum and transcendent:

We live in a world of people born just once. We are not witnesses to the past, not participants in the future. The instinct, memory, and program of the species have grown weak within us, as weak as the connection of the times. This very weakness (so extreme that we have lost our connection with nature) is where the human seed springs up. Man originates exactly where any other species dies out. No warm fur, no terrible teeth, no lupine morals. Trousers, the bullet, religion…

This passage illustrates very well Bitov’s peculiar mixture of portentousness and exuberance: just as one begins seriously to lose patience with all his high talk of God and Man and Nature, Bitov will produce a wonderful flourish: “Trousers, the bullet, religion…” It is modern civilization in a sentence.

The first tale is the most attractive because the particular patch of the world in which it is set is so vividly conjured up for us. Bitov lets us almost breathe the thrilling Baltic air and smell the sea and feel the hot wind of the northern summer:

Here the towering dunes came right to the water, stopping abruptly at that maximum angle, which immediately led me to think of mathematics. Free-flowing dry matter. All this was flowing, falling—just touch it. But no one did, and it stood in an unthinkable sultry equilibrium. Above the scorching daytime heat of the sand the air was shimmering, turning this already dreamlike scene into a mirage. I was standing on the crest of a gigantic sand wave, ceaseless in its agonizingly slow race toward the mainland: here it smashed against the inert smoothness of the gulf exactly as the sea smashed against the shore.

Ironically, considering its title, there is no such palpable sense of place in the second tale, “Man in a Landscape.” This is deliberate, I assume, since the topic for discussion here is man’s relationship to God. The narrator encounters the painter Pavel Petrovich (who at times seems no more than a projection of one of the narrator’s myriad selves), in a restored “culture park” in Kolomenskoe, “a former estate of the grand Princes of Moscow, overlooking the Moscow River” (Again thanks, Susan). The two begin a long discussion, by turns exalted and earthy, and proceed to get drunk to the point of hallucination (the entire book is soaked in vodka). The painter, a wise bore, poses such questions as “For what purpose, actually, is man created?” Only a literary descendant of that double-headed monster whom Nabokov called Tolstoyevsky would now dare to import into what calls itself a novel these meandering perorations on birth, life, death, and salvation. Tedium does set in, but there are frequent flashes of insight, some of them almost worthy of Nietzsche:

This labor of correction and sharper definition is what creates a work of art. To incarnate an image or a word means not only to re-create it but also to falsify it to fit the design. The genius’s sufferings in this struggle with his primordial assumption are immeasurable, but a genius is a man who has made large assumptions. Without the design’s original falsehood, there would be nothing; only lifeless matter is exact.

The third tale, “Awaiting Monkeys (Transfiguration),” is the most varied in the stories it recounts, yet it is also the most baffling. It is set in various locations including Moscow, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Abkhazia. This time the narrator is working in film, first—if I have followed the story correctly—as a potential actor, then as a scriptwriter. He is also bent on visiting a monkey colony in Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast. The subject of the monkeys continues the ecological theme, but also it serves a satirical purpose, though who or what exactly is being satirized is never made specific. Doctor D. reappears, among a cast of shadowy Gogolesque characters with names such as Dragamaschenka, Givivovich, and Million Tomatoes.

The narrator himself no longer pretends to be a unit, his identity, if it can be called that, shifting between the “I” and the “HIM” of his opposing natures. Large historical events are introduced glancingly, suggesting the alternating sorrow, fear, and exultation in the Russia of the early 1990s. The narrator loses the manuscript of his novel in a hotel fire in Abkhazia, and as he drives toward the burning building he encounters tanks and soldiers on the road. Why the soldiers are there is not explained, but we cannot fail to recall that the narrative is set (or seems to be—nothing is certain here) at the time of the anti-Gorbachev coup, when Gorbachev himself was held captive at his villa on the Black Sea. Here the sense of anguish and despair is immediate and true:

…the hotel had burned, and not just my manuscript, but live souls. The empire had ended, history had ended, life had ended—I didn’t care what happened next. Didn’t care in what sequence the debris and burning brands went flying, or at what velocity.

Somehow everything had become too clear about the future.

It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what happened now. Because what had been would never be again. When what has been vanishes, what would have been vanishes also, along with it, because not even an atom of what has been will be contained in what will be. You will not be. What’s the difference?

Yet all is not lost. After his unsuccessful quest for the monkey colony, the narrator finds himself back in Moscow, where in the street one fateful August day he encounters again the painter Pavel Petrovich, carrying “the heavy iron headboard of a bed,” which, it turns out, is destined to form part of a barricade opposing the tanks sent by the coup leaders against the forces of democracy holding out in Yeltsin’s White House. And here, in a wonderful image that only a writer of Bitov’s talent and confidence would risk, all the chaotic bricolage of the novel is brought together in a miraculously unifying artistic gesture, which links the ragged defenders of the democracy movement of 1991 with the vision of the heavenly forces who, according to legend, came to aid Prince Nevsky’s army in the battle against the Teutonic Knights on frozen Lake Peipus in the thirteenth century. Nonchalantly fixing a pot of tea over a bonfire at the barricades, Pavel Petrovich doesn’t even bother to glance at the approaching tanks.

“Scrap metal. But don’t mind them. See there!”

With the spoon he was using to stir the chifir, he pointed skyward, not looking.

At first I imagined…But then I thought, No…I glanced down at the tanks once more, and then up at the sky. No, it couldn’t be! But…

“And I saw in the air an army…”

Leaning on white-hot spears as if on shovels, wearing quilted jackets over their white wings, the angels dozed in the sky. Their Russianized, Düreresque faces were spacious as fields, creased by lightning, and smoothed by the unquestioned inevitability of martial labor. Their swollen, blacksmiths’ fists, forged along with their weapons, inspired trust, like their faces. My heart was eased, not troubled: it was they whose fingernails had grown through their hands, they who were shackled to the clouds with ascetics’ chains, they who had the heavenly trash of Russian villages stuck to their wings, like chicken droppings masquerading as a patina—log cabins, fences, carts tracks, wells, the ruins of churches and tractors…

The Monkey Link is a large and complex work, deep in insight and broad in its allusions to literature, history, and contemporary Russian life. The tone varies between desperation and a jaunty earnestness, and Bitov indulges enthusiastically in a modernist literary experiment which strikes an admittedly jaded Western eye as strained and willfully obscurantist. Yet in its fevered energy and seemingly chaotic structure the book also can be read as a refutation of the paltry ideologies of socialist realism.

The Monkey Link may one day be considered a masterpiece or a tragic, disastrous failure. For now it is only possible to say that it is at once mesmerizing and infuriating, exquisite and crude, beautiful and horrendous, and that despite its distrust of itself and of its methods—the methods of art—it succeeds in catching something essential of the thick but shivering texture of the reality of our time.

This Issue

April 6, 1995

  1. *

    Pushkin House (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), p. 343.