Building a 'Monumental' satire

Voinovich juxtaposes absurdity, grimness of post-Stalinist Russia

Books

August 08, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff

Monumental Propaganda, By Vladimir Voinovich. Knopf. 363 pages. $25.

If Mark Twain had been reincarnated as a Russian, he might well have written this hilarious, humane, yet savagely insightful lampoon of Soviet life from Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Josef Stalin in 1956 up to Stalin's rehabilitation in the not-too-distant future.

In his first novel in 12 years, the Russian writer Voinovich has created a worthy sequel to The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1976), a classic World War II satire comparable in many ways to Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

To fully appreciate the novel's delicious absurdities, it helps to have lived in Russia during Soviet or post-Soviet times. But Andrew Bromfield's translation, with useful parenthetical tips about the Dickensian connotations of characters' names, is a rollicking good read even for those who have not had that privilege.

Monumental Propaganda is built around the statue of its title, a looming cast-iron Stalin that is rescued in 1956 from the trash heap of history by one Aglaya Stepa-novna Revkina, a formidably Communist widow who remains loyal to the dictator even after he is officially denounced. She moves the statue to her apartment in the grim little town of Dolgov, where it becomes an anchor for a novel that sails far and wide through the storms of a Russian half-century.

Voinovich has plenty of first-hand material to draw on. In youth, he worked as a carpenter and shepherd, and served in Kazakhstan on a grandiose Communist Youth League plan to cultivate new land (a flop, of course). He became a writer and drifted dangerously into satire, was harassed for years by the KGB and finally forced to immigrate to Germany in 1980. Ten years later, in a classic Russian course correction of the kind the novel is built on, his citizenship was restored and his anti-Soviet works published.

Some of Voinovich's encapsulations of modern Russia are likely to be quoted for decades. One character "used to divide up our post-October Revolution history into the eras of Cellar Terrorism (under Lenin, when they shot people in the cellars of the Extraordinary Commission, or Cheka), the Great Terror (under Stalin), Terror Within the Limits of Leninist Norms (under Khrushchev), Selective Terror (under Brezhnev), Transitional Terror (under Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev) and Terror Unlimited (the present time)."

But for this reader, Voinovich's greatest talent is for the matter-of-fact contortions of his sentences, which make reading him akin to watching a great gymnast at work. Describing how village elders decried the increased crime of the 1960s, the narrator deadpans: "Of course, even before then for domestic reasons and on public holidays, the residents of Dolgov had stuck knives in each other, run each other through with pitchforks and beaten each other to death with fence poles, but all that had merely been the observance of old local custom."

The grace notes -- "public holidays," "old local custom" -- place Voinovich squarely in a bittersweet satirical tradition Russians call "laughter through tears." His genius for comic invention recalls Gogol; his compassion for the victims of Russian history is reminiscent of Chekhov. In Russia, his work will be read as long as theirs; American readers who want to find out why can do themselves a favor by reading this book.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, studied Russian at Leningrad State University in 1976, served as Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and is the author of a book on the Soviet collapse, Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.

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