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.

Yevtushenko appears to be a novice in fiction. But, as in his poetry, he is masterful at judging how close to the precipice he can go in his social criticism. A novel about post-Revolutionary Siberia has to confront, or timorously evade, the anti-Kulak programme. Yevtushenko gives it three or four pages early in his narrative, implying that the Kulaks mainly died of homesickness when they were transplanted with all humanity into new villages. No mention is made of Stalin. Other digressions criticise contemporary Soviet society. There is routine denunciation of the corrupting effects of jeans, stereos and Marlboros on Russian youth, some satire on the sterility of Moscow literary life, and moderate anger vented at the unfairness of hard-currency shops which tantalisingly display what the native Russian may not buy. The sum total of Yevtushenko’s ‘criticism’, however, is that the Soviet Union hasn’t quite got its act together yet. As one approved character puts it:

Why do we still have lines [queues]? Because we’re poor? Ludicrous ... No country is richer than ours. But take a look into our railroad stations: they’re mobbed, people sleeping there, piled up on one other ... When will we get organised like normal people?

Vassily Aksyonov has plunged headlong over the precipice on which his fellow Russian treads so carefully. A best-selling, but imprudent chronicler of the Russian alternative culture, he defected to the US in 1980, taking, as the Literary Gazette put it, ‘the path of betrayal’. Aksyonov is now Time’s favourite Russian novelist. According to their profile of him, he lives in Washington, jogs four miles a day, and greatly admires the Jefferson memorial. The Burn, which is proclaimed his masterwork, was written over the period 1969-75, but never published in the USSR. It’s hard to see how it ever could have been. The novel (evidently composed as an angry private journal) is a fantasia on the theme of the lost hopes of the author’s generation: the young Russians who grew up with Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, who were elated by the Thaw, then crushed by the 1968 Prague invasion and the return of the ice age. The Burn’s appearance in the West has not been smooth. It was published in Italy in 1980, but has proved difficult to translate into English (much of the dialogue and authorial monologue is hip Moscow street talk) and there have been hitches with American publishers. The delay has cost Aksyonov dear, in that the work has failed to benefit from the immediate publicity of his defection.

When he still lived in the motherland, Aksyonov was a best-seller. Printed in editions of hundreds of thousands, those of his works approved by the authorities would sell out on publication day. It’s hard to see him having that much success as an exile. His notion of an avant-garde, like his notion of modern (sic) jazz, seems stuck in the Sixties. Just as (one imagines) forward Russian youth is currently still twisting the night away, Aksyonov has written the latest Beat novel. Like Kerouac’s later work, The Burn seems to have been written on the analogy of the saxophone improvisation, in a series of swooping solo flights. Jazz figures importantly in the novel: in the West, it is now of diminished account. For Aksyonov, hot and cool jazz retain a potent revolutionary charge. It would seem that there are clubs in Moscow, alternately just tolerated or inefficiently persecuted by the authorities, where young Muscovites make their statement by wearing jeans and coming on like fans. The Ginsberg figure in The Burn is the jazzman Silvester, whose great political gesture is to look like something out of last year’s Downbeat.

Silvester looked like a Western intellectual. He always took note of fashion, and always followed it. Right now [the late Sixties] he had long hair and moustaches down to his chin, but Samsik remembered when he had a Fifties-style crew cut. When he blew into his crooked horn, he looked like Satan himself ... he never looked at a steak, never touched brandy, and the only thing he did to chicks was to pay them compliments. Jazz was his whole life.

There’s a strong feel of ‘reefer madness’ camp about The Burn’s jazz scene, with the difference that Aksyonov’s not laughing. The Burn confirms that the best destabilisation technique the Americans have had over the last thirty years of Cold War has been Willis Conover, with his Voice of America programme beaming jazz two hours a night across the Iron Curtain.

Not that Aksyonov presents his Moscow hippies as being in any sense politically vital. In one of the less ecstatic of his digressions, he analyses the essential passivity of their rebellion in the good Khrushchev years. There is an illuminating (and I take it historically true) account of a pathetic 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstration mounted by them: ‘the idea being to show our kids’ solidarity with the unsquare people who were demonstrating in Trafalgar Square’. The militia beat up the demonstrators, indicating that police everywhere hate long hair more than they hate capitalism or communism. Thus instructed, the hippies adopt a ‘don’t make waves’ policy, and return to the never-ending hunt for designer jeans, the latest LP and Italian shoes. This, then, is a novel enraged by the post-Khrushchev freeze, while at the same time unillusioned by the liberating capacity of the Moscow underground. And yet Aksyonov clearly feels that he must stand up and be counted among his country’s long-haired, be-jeaned and jazz-loving fraction.

The Burn contains five main characters, all of the same generation, each sharing the same patronymic (the middle bit that ends in ‘vich’ – here Apollinarievich). One is a sculptor, one a physicist, one a writer, one a doctor and one a jazz musician. They are – possibly – a corporate entity. They are joined in an obsessive mission to discover Captain Cheptsov, the Kolyma guard who tormented the saintly Tolya von Steinbeck. Now retired, on a measly 170-rouble-a-month pension, Cheptsov beguiles himself by raping his stepdaughter (a dissident) and caring for the catatonic wife whom he stole from a betrayed colleague. In an entirely fantastic conclusion to the novel, he suffers a kind of living embalmment (like Stalin) for his sins. The quintet’s quest for Cheptsov is the springboard for a vast number of hallucinatory trips: poetic, obscene, surreal, farcical, macabre, expressing anger, rebellion, disillusionment and infantile fascination with the shiny consumer goods of corrupt Western capitalism. A mysterious Patrick Thunderjet, an American diplomat (or spy?) with a taste for stylish clothes, imported whisky and big gas-guzzling cars, intrudes into the story. The action skitters all over the place, settling at one bizarre point on the campus of Sussex University, where the modish revolutionaries Johnny Dior and Eurydice Cliquot plan a bomb outrage under the invited cameras of the TV people. The episode, which starts convincingly enough with students ‘fucking on all the steps of the vice-chancellor’s staircase’, climaxes in a typically mind-blown way:

Now the first rays of a crimson, pastoral sun were illuminating the fluffy, tinsel-like clouds over the county of Sussex. That mythical bird, the bittern, shrieked hysterically from a neighbouring swamp. For the last time Eurydice passed her pimply young tongue over the offspring of the House of Dior, who was already exhausted before the revolution had even begun, looked up into the sky, and shrieked with amazement and fury. On top of the university obelisk could be seen a folding cot, and sitting on it was Patrick Percy Thunderjet, professor in the Department of Slavic Studies ... ‘In the name of and under instructions from the youth of Simferopol and Yalta, I will now piss on your revolutions,’ he said amid the silence and, having first apologised to the young ladies present, thereupon carried out his promise.

According to Yevtushenko, disorganisation is the Russian vice. Aksyonov goes beyond disorganisation into the narrative equivalent of drunk and disorderly. This is a novel which is high, not on experimentalism (which would exact a certain discipline), but on free-associationism. The indiscipline of The Burn, its rampant breaking out of bounds, insolence and improvisation, is Aksyonov’s criticism of (Soviet) life. His epigraph is from Blok: ‘Only a lout can scoff at Russian life.’ The novel, for all its hipness, makes the same kind of loutish protest as those Americans who sewed the Stars and Stripes to the seat of their pants.

The Soviet young in The Burn lust for the material goods of the West. For them, utopia would be a Los Angeles shopping mall and an Amex gold card. For the fellow-travellers of T.C. Worsley’s novel, Moscow is the fount of spiritual nourishment, the known but unvisited other country, as Julian Mitchell terms it, in his play, Another Country. Fellow Travellers fits snugly with the success of the film version of the play, with the death of Blunt, and Britain’s continuing fascination with Thirties upper-class traitors. Worsley wrote the novel in the Thirties, concurrently with the events it describes. It was published in 1971, by the London Magazine. Now it is put forward, somewhat polemically, by GMP, with an introduction by Paul Binding (who is, I believe, working on a critical biography of Stephen Spender).

Binding argues that Worsley’s novel gains from a historically-distanced perspective on the fusion of high-born philanthropy, political romanticism and homo-erotic cultism which produced the fellow-travelling generation. Upper-class gays are, Binding suggests, inherently anti-fascist. The main interest of the novel, however, is less the analysis of a dirty decade and its martyrs than the identification of the originals of its characters which is now possible. The novel has half a dozen main characters, four of whom are homosexual men, and the fifth a titled woman, sister to a Cabinet Minister. The principal males, Martin Murray and Gavin Blair Summers, are, Binding informs us, modelled on Stephen Spender and Giles Romilly. Fellow Travellers thinly fictionalises a passage in Spender’s life which he has himself recollected in World within World. In 1933, the poet (in the novel a novelist) became friendly with an ex-guardsman, Tony Hyndman (called ‘Jimmy Younger’ in Spender’s autobiography, ‘Harry Watson’ by Worsley and ‘a secretary’ by Hugh Thomas in his history of the Spanish Civil War). The relationship went sour, Spender married, and Tony-Jimmy-Harry, fired by the doctrines he had picked up from his intellectual friends, enlisted in the International Brigade. In Spain, he was traumatised by battle, and rescued by Spender, who went himself to the front to arrange his friend’s reprieve from the firing-squad. Worsley apparently accompanied Spender on the mission.

This episode is the kernel of Worsley’s novel, though he embroiders it into a larger fable on the theme of political disillusionment and failing gods. The main attraction of the work, however, is its intimate portrait of Spender. As Worsley puts it, in his 1971 preface, Murray ‘was for us what someone like John Osborne was to the young of the Fifties’. But an Osborne without anger or malice. As Worsley presents him, the Spender character is the St Sebastian of his time: ‘what was most striking about Martin was his long, thin, sensitive, suffering face. The suffering was internal – his circumstances, enough money, and a remarkable talent, were easy enough on the surface. But he agonised for the world.’

Part of the book’s period flavour is its being written in the objective ‘I am a camera’ style modish in the Thirties: the work presents itself as entries in a reporter’s file. This makes for a very static narrative, and for the Spanish War scenes – the novel’s most gripping section – Worsley is forced to rely on extracts from another supposed novel, written more conventionally, by the Gavin-Romilly character. It’s very artificial, as is the masquerade of barely fictionalised characters. Spender’s and Isherwood’s memoirs suggest that this kind of witness is best given as unvarnished autobiography.

Fellow Travellers is published as a ‘Gay Modern Classic’. In its physical appearance, and general packaging, the novel is reminiscent of Virago Press’s successful excavation of ‘classics’ from the literary past so as to construct a tradition for modern feminism. Virago’s initiative has had other spin-offs, most notably the new ‘Chatto Fiction’ list. This series alters the established publishing routine by selecting works from the accumulated store of worthy but forgotten fiction published in the recent past, works published abroad (forbidden territory, usually, for the British publisher) and works with a strong political content. The aim is evidently to find a rather more ideologically-opinionated constituency for the reading of fiction. Another noteworthy publication from the Chatto Fiction list is The Power of the Dog, a psychological Western, first published in 1967. A story of psychopathology on the ranch, it opens with the line ‘Phil always did the castrating’ and ends with the neatest of Oedipal killings.

Although it has only recently been published in the UK, Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol has already been three months in the New York Times best-seller list. Forsyth at the moment is in America, promoting his latest thriller. His line, on the talk-shows I have heard, is frankly apocalyptic. Britain, he claims, is a domino about to fall. The hard Left have taken over the Labour Party; Kinnock is a mere stooge, who will be cast off, by palace revolution, after the Party wins the next general election. Thereafter will follow Finlandisation, and quick absorption into the Soviet empire. The novel fantasises a provocative bomb outrage by the Russians, blueprinted by Kim Philby, which will bring the Kinnock Trojan horse to power in 1986 on a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment.

As a Cold War nightmare, The Fourth Protocol is less well-written than Constantine Fitzgibbon’s When the kissing had to stop, which it resembles. And some of Forsyth’s punches are either pulled, or are wild misses. He clearly wrote the novel with Andropov as arch-villain, and was left with a gaping hole when the old tyrant died on him. Nor – for fear of libel, one presumes – does The Fourth Protocol dare mention who the puppet leader of the Labour Party will be in two years’ time; although it is clear that Forsyth may have a red-headed Welshman in mind. In places, the famed ‘faction’ style becomes prudently vague. As usual, Forsyth tends to interpolate too many clunking lecturettes on such things as the operating procedure of the SAS, the secret diplomacy of the 1968 Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (whose mysterious fourth protocol, covering luggable nukes, is central to his plot), and the workings of MI5. Not to put too fine a point on it, Forsyth writes at best efficiently, at worst like a tabloid journalist phoning in his copy for the morning edition. And, lowering over the whole paranoid narrative, is a sense of total improbability. Forsyth’s conviction, for instance, that the extremists within the Labour Party are deliberately muting themselves, playing a cunningly deep game of what he calls ‘clandestinity’, is belied by what recently happened at Blackpool where the hard Left’s takeover was about as clandestine as the IRA’s attempt to deselect the Prime Minister at Brighton. That bomb outrage will have done Forsyth’s novel no harm.

Whatever else, the chase scenes of The Fourth Protocol drag the reader along at an invigorating gallop. By contrast, Vladimir Volkoff’s The Set-Up is a ponderous affair. The plots of the two novels are exactly similar: both deal with fiendishly deep-laid Soviet conspiracies to disinform and destabilise Western democracy. But Volkoff’s novel, which is set among the White Russian community in Paris, lingers tediously on the moral complexities of patriotism and betrayal. The hero is recruited into the KGB in a scene on top of the tower of Notre Dame, which hammers its Biblical and Faustian symbolism so hard as to make the reader’s literary sensibility ache.