Chonkin’s Vicissitudes

Graham Hough

  • Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich, translated by Richard Lourie
    Cape, 358 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 224 01966 X
  • The Temptation of Eileen Hughes by Brian Moore
    Cape, 224 pp, £6.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 224 01936 8
  • Silver’s City by Maurice Leitch
    Secker, 181 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 436 24413 6
  • The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston
    Hamish Hamilton, 167 pp, £6.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 241 10673 7

Vladimir Voinovich’s Pretender to the Throne is a continuation of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,[*] and most of what has been said about the earlier book is equally true of this one. Equally untrue too. A comic novel about wartime Russia, a comic novel about Stalinism, is on the face of it such a contradiction in terms that the attempt to describe it keeps tripping up on misleading descriptions and false analogies. It is not, as has been said, a kind of Russian surrealism, for it does not revel in the irrational: the fantasy is all an extravagant blow-up of quite actual situations. It is not a Russian Catch-22, for the savage comedy of Catch-22 undermines all values: the only response left to absurdity and horror is a flat nihilism. Chonkin’s adventures take place in a world of tyranny, treachery, hypocrisy and cowardice: yet the possibility of another way of life is never really forgotten. The obvious ancestor is Gogol: the scarifying satire in which nevertheless the human points of reference are not lost is close to Dead Souls and The Government Inspector. The setting is the same – the god-forsaken provincial hole sunk fathoms deep in bureaucracy, stupidity and corruption. Of course, the political conditions are more frightful than anything in Gogol’s world, and the Germans are at the gates; but in reading Chonkin we often forget that it is 1941; we seem to be back in one of those timeless 19th-century Russian fictions. And indeed we are not very firmly in 1941. For all the wartime setting, the workings of the Party juggernaut portrayed here seem to embody the spirit of the whole Stalin era, seen presumably (we are not told when the book was written) from some point during the brief post-Stalin thaw.

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[*] Penguin, 269 pp., £2.50, 24 September, 0 14 006115 0.