Red Stars

John Sutherland

  • Wild Berries by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Antonia Bovis
    Macmillan, 296 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 333 37559 9
  • The Burn by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Glenny
    Hutchinson, 528 pp, £10.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 09 155580 9
  • Fellow Travellers by T.C. Worsley
    Gay Men’s Press, 249 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 907040 51 9
  • The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage
    Chatto, 276 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 3939 0
  • The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth
    Hutchinson, 448 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 09 158630 5
  • The Set-Up by Vladimir Volkoff, translated by Alan Sheridan
    Bodley Head, 397 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 370 30583 3

Yevtushenko’s face, more cadaverous by the year, stares morosely from the flap of Wild Berries. The camera has evidently caught him thinking of his native Taiga, the Siberian tundra which forms the idyllic background to the novel. In fact, the background of Wild Berries, which is not the best ordered of narratives, rather usurps the foreground, and for much of its length the novel reads like over-the-top Intourist travel literature, aimed at rehabilitating a region associated in the foreign mind (at least) with exile, sub-zero temperatures and days in the life of Soviet dissidents. A Siberian snow job, one might call it.

The pastoral tones of Yevtushenko’s novel, pitched between the buffoonery of peasant comedy and full-blooded romantic lyricism, have not always translated well. Early in the narrative, there is a riverside meeting between a Siberian maiden and a geologist tapping away on the bank. On comes a convenient thunderstorm, and a convenient haystack is nearby. Prior to giving herself to the stranger, the girl dances naked in the downpour and the effects Yevtushenko intends have some difficulty in crossing the linguistic border: ‘The storm embraced Ksiuta with its wet, warm arms, showering her with thousands of greedy, rough kisses, blinding her with the white zigzag explosions of uncountable lightning bolts, deafening her with ear-splitting rolls of thunder ... Then already hopelessly soaked, she stood up straight, offering her body to the powerful surge of water. For an instant the thought crossed her mind to run wherever her feet took her, away from the man who was waiting for her in the green cave [of the haystack], but she knew she wouldn’t.’ And so, a virgin from a virgin land, she gives herself to the Muscovite, whose child she bears. One can see what’s meant here – technology embracing the new frontier, and so on. But as it comes off the page, the rhapsody, like other flights in the novel, is both flat and overwritten. Presumably it rolls with fine mimetic thunder in the original Russian. More successful is the pastoral’s Perdita episode, handled with earthy comedy and unflinching sentimentality, in which the horny-handed Commissioner of Berries (Soviet bureaucracy apparently provides for such a post) discovers his long-lost (bastard) daughter, in the person of the macho, surgical-alcohol-swigging doctor who treats him for a kidney stone.

As one of his many book titles proclaims, Yevtushenko is ‘of Siberian stock’. But he is also the Soviet Union’s most internationally famous writer. Wild Berries’ meandering narrative allows him a few (immodest) reflections on the making of his own brilliant career, and the cosmopolitan maturity which has sprung from his deep provincial roots. A section of the novel (taking off from the babbling of a transistor’s newscast) transports us to Allende’s Presidential palace, a month before his CIA-engineered downfall. Another excursion swings to a rock concert by ‘the Tails’ in Hawaii. As he walks by the shore, after the show, the lead guitarist forgets all the tinsel around him, and remembers ‘that white night in Leningrad, when ... a Russian boy read his poetry, chopping the air with his hand’. The Russian boy is transparently Yevtushenko, whose public readings put him, he thinks, in the same league as the West’s pop superstars.

Wild Berries is bracketed within a portentous prologue and epilogue. It opens with a Siberian astronaut, wheeling in his space capsule over the planet, thinking, among other patriotic and philanthropic things, about his beloved Taiga. This moves to a pen portrait of Gagarin, and relates, as evidence of the pioneer cosmonaut’s humanity, an act of kindness to a certain young poet (can it be ... yes, it was). The epilogue goes back in time to the pre-Revolutionary period and the philosopher Tsiolkovsky, whom Yevtushenko hails as the spiritual father of manned space research. Tsiolkovsky evidently promulgated a vitalist pseudo-religion, in which space travel was to be man’s final transcendence of the material universe. Space capsule and wild Siberian berry fuse into a single life-enhancing image.

Wild Berries tells how a team of scientists have come into the Taiga, to prospect for ‘cassiterite’ – a mineral which, one understands, is required for the advancement of Soviet science and civilisation. Under the leadership of Viktor (he of the haystack) an epic battle develops between the men of science and nature, embodied in the Taiga. Viktor is hard and unyielding, but confrontation with the harder forces of Siberia eventually mellows him. A weak, treacherous member of the expedition is deservedly killed by a bear. Two other members (one a hunchback) find love. The team discover the precious cassiterite only at the peril of their own lives.

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