Leonid Latynin




Leonid Latynin, a graduate of Moscow University, was born in 1938 in the small town of Privolzhsk on the Volga. His poetry first appeared in print in 1968, and he has several collections of verse to his credit. During the Soviet period his highly original prose could not be published for political reasons. His novels include Sleeper at Harvest Time (English translation by Zephyr Press, and French translation by Flammarion), Stavr and Sarah (see Glas #6), and The Den (excerpted in Glas 16).




This novel was written in the 1960s, and although it made the rounds of many different journals and publishing houses, and filled a fat file in my desk with reviews expressing indignation, fright, puzzlement, embarrassment and gratitude, I never had occasion seriously to anticipate its publication. It was well worthwhile, nonetheless, to see one's text through the eyes of that time.

Readers of samizdat were engrossed in the anti-utopia -- Orwell, Zamyatin, Huxley, Kafka -- and my novel was inevitably perceived in terms of that familiar, standard code. It really didn't matter that I hadn't written an anti-utopia or a social satire, let alone a political pamphlet replete with veiled allusions: the diagnosis delivered by my readers was a clear case of anti-utopianism. In fact I had not had the slightest interest of laying out another Foundation Pit, renaming the Castle "the City", or transforming Big Brother into the Official (this latter character in my novel is not situated at the summit of the pyramid, he is an individual who stands on the boundary between God and Man). The experience of the anti-utopia is the experience of prophetic insight into the logic of the future. The Trojan Laocoon -- the first anti- utopian -- implored his fellow-citizens not to fall into the role of "uniformists" dragging their own doom into the city. The people would not listen to him, and the Gods punished him, in order to teach others not to stick their noses into the spokes of the wheel of history.

Prophets who foretell the past are mere artisans, and they really have no chance of making good on their predictions (unless, that is, history comes full circle). Retrospective prophecy is senseless, furthermore, because reality has now clearly exceeded the bounds of human imagination.

The anti-utopia is today a genre of the past. Even a decade ago some already felt that we were living in a post-utopian period, although in our country a farcical version of utopia was still being energetically played out -- a self-parody of utopia, retreating ever further from its original idea. I was therefore interested less in society's denial of the individual than in a free individual's denial of society. Is the creative calling opposed to the world of the anti-utopia from within, or does it facilitate it from without? If, as Berdyaev claims, creative work is "the opposite of egocentrism", if it is a striving towards something higher, the attempt to create a "new heaven and a new earth", then who bears responsibility for the failure of the creative act? My hero, the Face-Maker, is an artist tormented by a prosperous existence in a sickeningly self-satisfied world devoid of freedom. Initially he is a man of ambition rather than a creative artist. As he makes the moral ascent towards the ideal, the claims of ambition are dissolved in the noble and altruistic goal of transforming the world and creating a new individual. But the artist's greatest victory proves to be a crushing defeat: his creation is not a new reality, merely a standard cultural artefact; not a new person, but a new face, a new canon, a new image. The moment when the artist realizes his defeat is the very moment when the crowd makes its appearance, ready to accept his creative failure as a true revelation -- and then the "false heaven" created by the artist collapses on his head and kills him.

Where does the boundary lie between supreme success and total defeat of an artist who imagines himself to be a god at the very moment when he is transformed into a devil? How does the meaning of life justify his creative act, if his daring does not lead to atonement?

The Face-Maker and the Muse is basically a novel about the fate for an artist and a prophet, about his rise and his downfall, about his responsibility for the metamorphoses undergone by his own ideas. The novel is, if you wish, a metaphor for the fate of the artist in the world. But this metaphor is still not the essence of the matter.

The idea of a novel and its plot are like the protective sheath of a telephone cable. The cable does not exist in order to protect the wires from the elements and physical damage (time and the state), or to contain as many fine fibres of wire as possible (sub-plots and messages), but in order to provide a route and a direction for the movement of a certain force, which for some is the opportunity to hear a person who lives behind the stone wall of alienation, or beyond the fantastic distances of geography and political system, while for others it is the opportunity to be heard by them. For yet others this is a channel of communication through which they can conduct a dialogue.





When you look down on the Volga from the high bank of the Chuvil hills, the river doesn't seem very wide at all: in their simple-minded fashion the hills rob the eyes of what meagre space there is. Probably this is because in those parts we call the hills "mountains" -- Cathedral Mountain, Peter and Paul Mountain, Cold Mountain, Resurrection Mountain and finally, Hospital Mountain, bearing on its summit the red-brick building of the old  hospital, built at the turn of the century in the drab provincial style. And standing beside it, a house from the same period, occupied from times immemorial by our family and our neighbours.

I saw them build the new wing on to that house and I watched my first teacher move into it after his arrival from foreign parts.

An accent that wasn't from the Volga, a glance filled with unworldly compassion, a light that burned all night in the window -- these were all unusual things in our town, which no longer ranked as a regional centre. But the local authorities tolerated this strange man, for in that period immediately after the war a teacher was a great rarity anywhere in our region -- and the mongrel yard-dogs tolerated his white poodle with the same feeling of irritation.

A few years ago the wing of the house had caught fire, and although the flames were extinguished quite quickly (they hardly touched the main house at all), the teacher was choked to death by the smoke.

In the very farthest corner of the attic, under a thick layer of gray dust, I discovered a bundle of papers, neatly wrapped in newspaper and bound round with fine copper wire.

Later, at home in Moscow, when I had read everything that my Teacher had written, I recalled, like some blurred and faded spectral vision, a walk we had taken together long before.

It was an oppressive, cotton-wadded, dense, viscous night in autumn. We went down to the river, almost feeling our way along by touch, and walked to the water's edge. The moon and stars were hidden behind the clouds. It was pitch-black, just as it should be on an overcast autumn night on the Volga.

Suddenly, somewhere far, far away from us on the opposite bank, a wavering flame flared into life, and by the light of the campfire we could just make out the dim shape of a solitary figure.

"A campfire, now there's a good idea," said the Teacher. "Just think, now: the moon and the stars are hidden by the clouds, and the power of darkness seems complete, but it only makes a fire lit by anyone even brighter and easier to see."

It cost us quite some time and effort before we could get our own campfire burning. The earth was damp, the branches were heavy and wet. But eventually the campfire became a blaze, and I found myself in quite unfamiliar surroundings -- a glimmering, bloated landscape, with something that might be a bush or might be some strange rustling creature waving its paws at me, the strange rocky trunk of an unfamiliar tree and eyes that had appeared out of the darkness, bearing reflections of our distorted faces and the tight-bundled flames of the campfire.

The man on the far bank waved to us. The Teacher returned his wave and laughed.

It seems that was all I could remember. Except, that is, for the words "night realism" and a thought which I can now only paraphrase approximately: "one more thing that used to unite people is coming to an end."

The Teacher's papers contained two novels and a mass of plans and drafts.

The novel The Face-Maker and the Muse begins with the following words: "The soot took to the air reluctantly."