Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vladimir Voinovich's Private Ivan Chonkin

Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
resembles Ilya Ehrenburg's novel, The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, and seems to draw inspiration from Gogol, whose novel Dead Souls and play, the Inspector General, satirized Russian more than a century earlier.  It's a work of high comedy that nevertheless gnaws at the very foundations of Soviet life.  The lead character, Ivan Chonkin, is a Soviet everyman who encounters every shade of absurdity in his ordinary life.

The book, the first part of a trilogy, seems to demonstrate that Stalinism should not only be approached by writers who have embraced the trope of tragedy.  Although the Soviet bureaucracy terrified and terrorized countless Soviet citizens, it was produced a bizarre and darkly comic set of circumstances ordinary men and women.  Chonkin's adventures force readers to understand that Soviet officials are expected to lie to one another about production norms and outputs.  Chonkin's adventures further reveal that Soviet ideology is often utterly at odds with the lived experience of Soviet citizens.

Chonkin's depiction of Stalin and the cult of personality around Stalin reveals that the rot of Soviet life starts at the head of top.  An accused Jewish citizen's encounter with the Soviet secret police stands as a perfect example of the ridiculous nature of Stalinism.  Voinovich fantasizes that an accused person fearlessly confronts his brutal interrogators by pointing out that insofar as he, too, possesses the name Stalin, he is immune from prosecution.  After all, the humble Jewish Stalin points out, if anyone happened to hear that a lowly official had put Stalin in jail, or hurt him in any way, heads would surely roll.  Promptly released, the anecdote about a Jewish Stalin undermines the myth of the Great Dictator and indicates that in Soviet society even the sadists fear for their own safety.

Overall, Chonkin's simple, uneducated approach to life is always overshadowed by the even more stupid men and women who represent Soviet society.  Chonkin's neighbor, for instance, relentlessly pursues the agenda laid down by Lysenko.  His home literally filled with shit (fertilizer), Chonkin's neighbor is convinced he can create a plant that is half tomato and half potato and thereby circumvent the laws of heredity.  The starkest contrast the petty ignorance of Chonkin is the titanic ignorance of the Soviet leaders who bragged about their friendship with the Germans right up until they were invaded and nearly defeated by them. 

Favorite quotes:

Some people thought he drank because he was a drunkard, while others found the cause in family problems.

All that wouldn't have been so terrible except that, as bad luck would have it, things at the kolkhoz were going poorly.  Not what you would call very poorly, you could even say things were going well, except that they were getting worse and worse every year.

Having heard and carefully considered all the hogwash which each of you, according to his ability, had proposed....

"And just why isn't it going to work? asked Opalikov impatiently.  He did not like any objections, ever.

"There won't be anybody to bring firewood to the kitchen."
"No one is indispensable," said the regimental commander.

His mother's health was frail, she neglected the house, yet somehow they kept going, living from hand to mouth until, one day, she drowned in the river.

Then, at a time known to all, a search for kulaks began in the village.  Although not a single one could be found it was mandatory to find some if only to set an example.

The Chonkins were exiled and Ivan ended up in a Children's Home where, for more than two years, they tormented him with arithmetic. In the beginning he endured it all obediently, but when it came to dividing whole numbers and fractions, he could stand it no longer and hightailed it out of his native village.

From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life's laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.

"He's a decent guy at least?" asked Ninka, efficiently gathering her information.

"First you're a Communist, then you're a chairman.  And diagrams have great political significance.  It's strange to hear a Communist underestimate them.  And I still don't know whether what you're saying is just an error or a firm conviction.  But if you're going to stick to that position, we'll have to take a good hard look at you again, we'll look right into your very heart, goddammit."

Friday, August 24, 2018

Irene Nemirovsky's The Wine of Solitude

After reading The Mirador, a "fictional autobiography" of Irene Nemirovsky by her daughter, I felt compelled to tackle those Nemirovsky's novels that touch upon her early years in the Russian Empire. The Wine of Solitude is such a book, and clearly provided her daughter with much of the inspiration for the early chapters of The Mirador.  Like many of her books, it features a wicked, self-absorbed mother, and a wealthy father.  Like the author, the non-observant Jewish protagonist, Helene, grew up in the Ukraine.  She described her childhood hometown thus: "The silence of the sleepy provincial town, lost deep within Russia, was intense, heavy and overwhelmingly sad."  Later, Helene moved as  St. Petersburg, but it equally depressing, introducing the famous capital city accordingly: "How harshly it blew, that day, the biting north wind, and what a sickly odor of filthy water rose from the Neva." Soon, Helene was displaced again, and this time by the Revolution.  Moving briefly to Finland, she ultimately found her way to France, which she already knew from a series of earlier vacations.

The book's chief virtue is that it's told from the point of view of youth, but lacks any sense of condescension.  While young, Helene is perfectly capable of maintaining her own intellectual vitality, and equally capable of offering the reader an uncompromising critique of the adults in her life.  While the novel doesn't dwell on the Revolution, it does demonstrate the extent to which the Revolution could serve as a plot point in the psychological development of Russians.  The Revolution was both a social fact and an individual one.  The Revolution led Helene into exile but, unusually for the time, did not diminish the wealth for her family.  It did however appear as a sad or even tragic event, somehow mirroring Helene's own bitterness about her family situation.  Great events, like great cities, could be experienced as new forms of tragedy. Without sentimentalism, the author introduces the twentieth century's most influential political convulsion with deliberately minimal commentary.  "The February Revolution came and went, then the October Revolution.  The city was distraught, buried in snow."

The Wine of Solitude is a deeply personal novel, somehow describing the personal pain of the protagonist and the universal pain of entering the inhospitable world of adulthood.   However, the novel is also a commentary on Russia, which forced Helene into exile.  The Revolution did not bring joy to people like Helene. Instead, it brought a new level of chaos, decay, and disorder.  In fact, its chief visual legacy for Helene was garbage.  As the author remarks:  "In the darkness they could smell the rancid odor of the canals;  no one had bothered to clean them since the February Revolution;  no one bothered to repair their stones;  the city was crumbling beneath the weight of the water, slowly disintegrating, becoming a city of smoke, illusions and fog, retreating into a void."

The chaos of post-revolutionary Russia soon led to exile, which often entailed new forms of confusion and anxiety, if not also delusion.  Where should exiles go if they could no longer live in their homeland?  "They talked about Shanghai, Tehran, Constantinople.  They had to leave.  But where should they go?  Danger was everywhere, but since everyone was in the same boat it seemed less urgent;  it would pass."  Helene ultimately landed in France, physically safe and still relatively rich.  But of course even safety can be experienced as trauma if one's father remains psychologically distant, and one's mother is your rival rather than protector.

A few quotes from the book: 

...she was always sad, complaining, anxious: everything was an excuse for her to sigh, to lament. "Life is bad," she would say.  "God is terrible.  Men are harsh..."

Take my time, my care, my blood, my flesh...she seemed to be saying as she stared at them with her soft, dead eyes.

Her entire life was scarred by the marks of misfortune and unhappiness;  she had experienced poverty, illness, the death of people she loved;  her husband had cheated on her, betrayed her;  she felt that her daughter and her husband could barely stand her.  She had been born old, anxious, weary, while everyone around her was overflowing with vitality and passionate desires.  But her main affliction was a kind of prophetic sadness;  she seemed more included to fear the future than weep for the past.

A rush of anguish suddenly ran through the child, making her shudder;  she sat in a corner holding a book, quiet and alone;  she felt as if she could sense the solitude of the grave;  the room became hostile and frightening;  beyond the narrow circle of the light from the lamp, darkness reigned;  the shadows slithered toward Helene, rising to engulf her;  she strained to push them away, like a swimmer pushing back the water with his arms.

It was late autumn and the children were confined to the safety of their room, to protect them from the cold air that Russians feared as if it were a plague.

On one side of her was her husband, who wore glasses and had cold, pale hands;  on the other her long-standing lover, who was even older, fatter, and balder than her husband.

"Your hair's no naturally curly, is it?" Her lips were so pursed that they words came out in a kind of soft whistle, like the sound of a flute.
"Jealous bitch," thought Helene.

"Did you also know Safronov senior when he was at the height of his success?" asked Madame Manasse.  "When I came to live here he was already old."
"Yes, I did know him.  He squandered three fortunes:  his mother's, his wife's and his daughter's, who had some money left to her by his wife's father.  Three fortunes..."

Oh, how she hated Mademoiselle Rose.  It was a shy hatred, but a profound one.

"Live with the dogs, not like them," he sometimes told Karol, since Karol loved gambling, wine and women.

"What is in the interest of Russia," Chestov said harshly and looked around him, haughtily scrutinizing everyone as if to remind them all that he was the representative of the government and had the right to look deep into their hearts and souls in the name of the Emperor.

"What am I complaining about?" she thought. "I'm no different from anyone else.  Of course, everyone's house has an adulterous wife, unhappy children, and busy men who think only of money.