The Moscow Times

29 îęň˙áđ˙ – 4 íî˙áđ˙ 1999 ă.

Plastic Surgery Secures Utopia

 

By Oliver Ready

 

The publishing house Glas has, since its first issue, undertaken a fairly lonely but worthy crusade to bring to the attention of the West deserving contemporary Russian writers, the vast majority of which elude translation by bigger-name publishers.

Of late Glas’ focus has shifted to major works of the recent past that have been neglected in the West largely for their difficulty. Andrew Bromfield’s new translation of the philologist and ethnographer Leonid Latynin’s  1978 novel The Face-Maker and the Muse fits well into this pattern.

Unpublished in Russian until perestroika – like all Latynin’s prose – «The Face-Maker» is a brave and challenging work that eventually rewards the considerable effort needrd to endure its tortured prose, ridden with overloaded imagery and, in this translation at least, interminable and often flagrantly ungrammatical sentences. A satirical treatment of the Utopian ideal, «The Face-Maker» is set in a generic City whose inhabitants are motivated solely by the crude rules of social advancement. Each individual has a likeness coefficient, a technical formula which measures his or her physical similarity to the City’s icon – «the Image» - and gives the individual social status. Possessors of high likeness coefficients get names, others just get numbers, while yet others are deprived of any identity whatsoever. Since this coefficient is artificially alterable –

so-called face-makers wander around performing primitive and painful plastic surgery on deserving recipients – the City is in a constant state of flux, and dissenters unhappy with the status quo are quickly administrated the violent measure of Departure.

Latynin focuses on the fate of a single, idealistic face-maker (and his female inspiration, the Muse) who, as a result of intrigues in the corridors of power, rises to the top of his profession to become «The Great Face-Maker». In literary terms, Latynin’s City and his depiction of a soulless body politic is undeniably derivative: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920s satire «We» also showed how the Soviet man, deprived of his freedom, could be reduced to numbers and formulas, as, less directly, did Fyodor Dostoevsky’s «Notes from the Underground» half a century earlier.

What is interesting about Latynin’s satire is that it goes on to develop this tradition. By the time Latynin wrote this, the communist experiment had already been largely played out and the result was clear. There could be no Utopia such as had been satirically envisioned by Zamyatin’s City, covert rule-bending is rife and the abyss between public and private lives irrevocably widened.

It is tempting to see «The Face-Maker» as the kea of the Brezhnev stagnation – no one really believes in «the Image» (Stalin, Brezhnev, whoever) yet, outwardly at least, most people carry on behaving as if they do. It is also tempting see this Image as an evolved Christ: whether as a violent corruption of the original or as its logical progeny, Latynin never makes clear.

However we interpret the finer points of Latynin’s parable, the basic message is unambiguous: In a society governed by propaganda and false icons (and this could be the modern West as much as Soviet Russia) reality has become cosmetic and everybody, artist and functionary alike, is subject to its corroding influence. Even Latynin’s spiritually driven Face-Maker, who is given the chance to create a new Image, succeeds eventually only in feeding the icon industry.

Perhaps Latynin’s point is unoriginal, yet it rings true. The transparent city of  Zamyatin’s «We» never quite materialized: The KGB did a good job, but they couldn’t stop people from muttering in the kitchen.  Latynin’s vision of a value-deprived world presided over by plastic surgeons, however, has come to pass with a speed that perhaps not even the author could have anticipated.