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.

At the end of his first cycle of adventures, Private Chonkin was ordered with his rifle to a certain defence post. He was then forgotten; he settled down with the genial and accommodating Nyura, the local postwoman, and very properly continued to obey his original orders. Since they were never countermanded, he saw it as his duty to resist all attempts to dislodge him: in the end, he routed a whole Soviet regiment single-handed. For this he could not be forgiven, and he was cast into prison, where we find him at the beginning of the present instalment. It is impossible to outline the consequent plot, for, apart from Chonkin’s vicissitudes, those of so many other characters are pursued as well – Chonkin’s cell-mate, for example, who had built up a splendid career for himself by writing endless anonymous denunciations, which were always believed. Chonkin’s destiny, and the title of the book, are determined by the discovery in the course of a vast bureaucratic investigation that his nickname in his native village was the Prince. From this, by a wondrous self-propagation of rumours, arises the idea that Chonkin is a scion of the old nobility in disguise, centre of a vast conspiratorial web, plotting to betray Russia to the Germans and bring back the Czars. But this is the merest scaffolding, on which is hung a kaleidoscopic array of incidents. The incidents are fantastic, the characters are real – petty bureaucrats, Party officials, NKVD officers, a scatter of little people keeping their heads down as best they may. Chonkin is no wily Yossarian figure: he is an innocent, and so is his Nyurka. So, strangely enough, are some of the other characters, even among the least sympathetic. Degraded as their lives and actions are, we are made to feel that they have been caught up in a hideous machine, but that relics of clear-sightedness and decency may still be lying about. The public prosecutor, in an access of self-disgust, has the grace to blow his brains out. The most savage satire is in parodies of official jargon, of the language of voluntary confessions and so forth: but there are many passages of pure Pickwickian humour, incongruous with the theme, but greatly enriching it.

Voinovich has apparently been in opposition, as a supporter of the civil rights movement, since 1966. His novel, though set in the Russia of forty years ago, seems a transmutation of his own experience. In 1974, he was expelled from the Writers’ Union and his writings were suppressed. In 1978, his mother and other relatives were told that he was dead. His life was threatened, he was told to emigrate, and after the usual cat-and-mouse game – passports promised and then withheld, attempts to confiscate books and papers – he finally came to the West in December 1980. One cannot be surprised: his book may be formally a comedy, but no unmasking of the Soviet system has been more shattering or more comprehensive.

At one time the warp and woof of the standard novel was the social fabric, the accepted world, criticised perhaps or satirised, but its validity not ultimately questioned. The tourist in current fiction increasingly finds himself in worlds that are dying of inanition, that have been violently torn apart, or are struggling to maintain themselves against some vast hostility. At the milder end of the spectrum is tired decay, at the harsher end violence and horror. There are plenty of locales to choose from; the Home Counties do not figure very largely; but Ireland does, and, increasingly, Northern Ireland. This is Brian Moore’s territory, Belfast and its environs; and even when his characters travel far from it, to Ville-franche, or Los Angeles or London, they are still enveloped in its miasma. The violence is only glimpsed on the fringe of these life-stories: Belfast stands for boredom, frustration, suffocating routine, aborted loves and fetid pieties. Graham Greene is quoted as saying that Brian Moore is his favourite living novelist, and one can see why. All those Pelagian notions anathema to Mr Greene – that man might save himself by his own efforts, or improve his arrangements for living in the world – are silently dismissed in Brian Moore’s fiction. Not that anything dismissive is said, or even openly suggested. These grimmish anecdotes, in great variety (it is also true, as Graham Greene says, that Moore never repeats himself), are ideologically taciturn and severely self-contained. They rely on absolute authenticity and solidity of specification. His characters draw nothing from the common stock of the Novelist’s Supply Stores. And if the stories have more vivacity than this account would suggest, it is because the detail, the handling of small events and settings, is so skilful and well-informed.

The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, like The Doctor’s Wife five years earlier, is about a failed sexual adventure. But here Eileen Hughes, the ingenuous unsentimental employee, is herself never really tempted at all. The accent falls on Bernard McAuley, wealthy, confident – the commonplace boss seducer, as it appears at first. But the story is not the expected one: it is not a case of the randy businessman having a bit on the side. It is a fatal passion; and McAuley’s wife realises this from the start. And as she needs at all costs to preserve her marriage, she colludes, condones, becomes Eileen’s patron and protector, acquiesces in her accompanying them on the lavish holiday in London that turns into a nightmare. The action mostly takes place in a hotel near Victoria, with backward glances towards the small Ulster town from which they all come. The drawing is brilliant; depths and perspectives of character and background are suggested with the greatest economy. What are we to think of it all? Well, you are not supposed to ask: judgment is neither offered nor invited. But this is not the programmatically-assumed objectivity of the nouveau roman: more like a touch of Maupassant.

Silver’s City is Belfast too – the underworld of treachery and violence that has been generated by 15 years of civil strife. It is a harsh book about a brutish life; scarcely a glimpse of the surviving normal decencies is permitted to appear. Nor do we get the slightest inkling of the causes, let alone reasons, for the repeated cycle of bombings, shootings and arson: it is a self-sustaining disease. ‘Silver’ Steele is a sort of folk-hero (Protestant, for what that is worth) who has done ten years in jail for burning down a chemist’s shop and murdering its occupant. At the beginning of the book he is sprung from a hospital ward in the prison by Galloway, a freelance killer from Glasgow hired for the job. Who ultimately hired him, or why, never becomes clear: the suggestion is that violence and terror are being manipulated from above by powerful men whose interests they somehow serve. Any idea of rational political antagonism, or even religious conflict, has long since disappeared: weasels fighting in a hole, as Yeats said of an earlier civil war. Galloway, who first appears as Steele’s liberator, turns out in reality to be his jailer; presently he is told to kill him. Steele escapes, and a savage private duel develops between them, against a general background of urban barbarity and menace. The outcome is that Steele kills Galloway, and resolves to give himself up. The prison he knows is better than the city outside. Maurice Leitch is a writer of considerable and sombre power. This is an arresting, imaginative evocation of a world so gangrened by hate and cruelty as to be beyond redemption. Its status, intended or achieved, as a historical report is something that an outsider can hardly judge.

Ireland again, with The Christmas Tree, this time Dublin, and Dublin only as a background. Yet again, though, a background rejected, the scene of a repressive childhood, somewhere to escape from. But this is incidental: it is not Jennifer Johnston’s theme. Her theme is a daunting one, from which it is hard to preserve a decent detachment, and it makes claims that by most readers will only grudgingly be acknowledged. Constance Keating, a woman of 40, finds she is dying of leukemia, and comes back to the home she left over twenty years ago, now empty, for the last month of her life. It is to be spent in reviewing her experience and making sense of her past. She left home to become a writer and to be free. She has not become a writer and she has not been particularly free. Her one positive act is to have had a brief affair with a middle-aged Jew in Italy and afterwards, unknown to him, to bear his child. She has not seen him again.

The child is now nine months old, cared for with her own family by Constance’s sister, long despised for her conventional virtues, but now turning up trumps. Constance’s last positive act is to write to the father telling him to come and take the baby away, which in the last pages he does. In the meantime, she refuses to go to hospital, drives her friends and relations to distraction by rejecting attempts to care for her, and lives on alone in the family house recalling the past. This she contrives to do with great fullness and richness of perception – especially the boring, comfortable, unloving childhood and awkward youth. Although Constance’s independence is always asserted, we learn very little about her independent life.

Jennifer Johnston’s earlier novels have been very highly praised for their poignancy and strength. One can see these qualities here, but they are curiously employed. The pathos of the situation, acutely and unsentimentally exposed, seems deliberately used to forbid the reader to say what needs to be said: that this is a life that does not make sense, and that no amount of retrospection will improve it. The Constance whose last days we follow, whose reflections and reactions form the substance of the text, comes over as a foolish woman, self-absorbed, self-deluding and intolerably self-satisfied even in articulo mortis: yet the text demands a sympathy for her to which, except for her impending death, she has no claim at all. She exploits her situation, and her author seems to be in complicity with her. In many ways, this short novel is very skilfully handled: but I cannot avoid the feeling that something has gone badly wrong with the whole conception.

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