Soviet Russian literature
Cambridge university press 1993
Virtually every writer who is mentioned in this book has been concerned, directly or indirectly, with contemporary Soviet reality. Even those works that have focused on events and circumstances in previous Russian history, or on private lives, emotions, and relationships, have included some degree of awareness of the texture of Soviet life and of care for the problems and conflicts of the present. The novels of Leonid Latynin are an exception.
Although he had been active as a poet and translator for many years, Latynin (born 1938) did not publish fiction until the appearance in 1988 of his novel The Face-Maker and the Muse (Grimer I muza, written 1977-78). The setting – an unidentified city, with no particularly Russian characteristics, at an unspecified time - is deliberately vague, emphasizing the abstract and eternal quality of the novel’s thematics. The hero is one of a large number of plastic surgeons employed by the all-powerful government to reshape the faces of the populace to conform to an ideal Image. Such surgery, which the hero proudly considers not a craft but an art, is never-ending process, because the authorities keep changing the specifications of the Image to fit altered standards of perfection. (Many citizens have accumulated numerous layers of faces over the years.) Although the work is arduous and demanding, it gives the dutiful hero great aesthetic and moral satisfaction, as well as a privileged status and opportunities for social advancement. For one thing, members of the upper levels of society are given names, while the masses are only known by their numbers.
It is not clear what iron hand ultimately rules this robotic civilization – the aura of mystery is as dense as the constantly cloudy and rainy atmosphere. Discipline is severe; unruliness and nonconformity, as well as an unacceptable visage, are punished by death, which is quaintly called Departure (Ukhod). There is, however, intense political competition and intrigue within the higher echelons of authority, and the hero becomes entangled in, and ultimately the fatal victim of, this intrigue.
It is tempting to see this fantastic allegory as a kind of anti-utopian political parable, although as such it is not readily decipherable. The novel is also a study of the psychology and sufferings of the artist, who is increasingly disturbed about the morality of his ultimately absurd profession. A love story runs through the work, culminating in a tragic separation. In his Departure in the midst of a popular uprising, the hero leaves behind his beloved, who has just had another new face carved upon her.
Latynin’s “novel” Sleeper at Harvest Time (Spyashchii vo vremya zhatvy, 1991) might better be called a compendium. Saturated with Russian history, it extends from the tenth century AD to a fantastic twenty-first century, but concentrates on those two extremes. (The twentieth century is mentioned in only a few passing references to “Joseph the Bloody” and one reference to the decayed and forgotten Lenin mausoleum.) Its hero, Emelya, who is capable of moving freely in time and was born in a small tribal settlement on the site of the future Moscow Kremlin, is the son of a pagan priestess and a bear. In the twenty-first century, this same Emelya is a citizen of a tightly regulated, xenophobic Moscow, one of the main features of which are flying squads of police known as "percentchiks", whose function is to stop people on the streets, draw blood samples from them, and test the blood to determine the proportion of various racial and national strains in their makeups. Each area, block, and dwelling in the city is meticulously segregated according to these strains, and violators are executed.
When it is discovered that Emelya has "bear" in his blood, he is publicly stoned to death at a hallowed place of execution on Red Square. He dies happy in the knowlelge that he is being sacrificed for the good of society, to protect its genetic purity. Emelya's mother, the priestess Leta, a thousand years earlier, had voluntarily sacrificed herself for the good of the tribe by being burned at the stake, after having ritually coupled the night before with each of the tribe's eleven heads of household.
These two episodes of sacrifice are designed as major thematic connections. Otherwise, there is very little plot in Sleeper at Harvest Time. The work depends for its cohesion not on story lines but upon a kind of historical pageantry, the juxtaposition of scenes and rituals, semi-Biblical, semi-pagan accounts of the Creation, and chronicle-like accounts of ancient Russian cities and rulers. Latynin lavishly recreates prayers, charms, and incantations, features magic, myth, and legend, and uses other folk themes and motifs in abundance. The total is a mosaic compounded of historical, religious, and anthropological materials.
Not only Latynin's fiction thematically far removed from contemporary realism; it stands apart in its stylistic originality. In The Face-Maker and the Muse he had shown a fondness for figurative language, and notably the simile. The array of devices in Sleeping at Harvest Time is much broader. Many passages are written in an oral style that suggests the cadences and formulas of folk tales. Others have the stately tone of medieval chronicles and other religious and historical writings. There is much anaphora and repetition of phrases and clauses, and there are long catalogues of cities, rulers, nations, and regions. All of this produces arresting, often charmingly archaic rhetorical effects. Indeed, perhaps without intending to, Latynin has made the past, although surely tragic, seem more colorful and vibrant than the present.