Saturday, August 18, 2007

book of books - The Madhouse


Most of the great works of Russian literature are either in the 19th century or from a select band of writers that have made a reputation in the West from the 20th century. But if you go looking there are some real gems to be found from writers that used their talent to highlight the madness of the Soviet system and Alexander Zinoviev is among those.

It is not too difficult to find works that are written during the years of the Stalin purges but this is set against the era of Brezhnev when things were in the odd state of being mocked but still having teeth.

The title refers to the nickname for the institution where the main character works but it is of course a play on the entire country and the communist system.

Plot summary
The story evolves around a junior research fellow (JRF) in an academic institute who half heartedly plans becoming a party member and moving up to the next step on the ladder. One of JRF’s jobs is to liaise with the mentally ill who keep trying to send in treatises to the academy and as a result he meets someone he refers to as ‘the terrorist’ and along with a collection of people in his head – Marx, Lenin, Stalin and the KGB leaders Iron Felix and Beria – he spends most of his time living in a fantasy world. When he is not participating or watching those mock the system, spending time with women or arguing with the voices in his head he has to live in a small apartment with neighbours only too happy to denounce him. The result of that is that the KGB pick up on his trial and are determined to nail him for planning political assassinations. His friends and colleagues are interviewed and the case against him deepens. He is sent to a rest home and when he returns at a critical stage in his career the men in the trench coats come for him and take him away.

Is it well written?
It is sometimes difficult to work out just what is happening because you sense there is an assumption that you will be familiar with the machinations of the soviet state. But what does become clear through the use of the historical voices in JRF’s head is that the system was built on madness, thrived on it and even when it is falling apart continues to function like a drunk lunatic. The sense of unreality that must have always existed but was something to be feared in Stalin’s time is there but with a leader everyone jokes about and a West everyone is jealous of it seems acceptable to attack the system. But as JRF shows you can still be hurt and lose your career and your lodgings if you get on the wrong side of the few nutters left running the country.

Should it be read?
It is not one of those books that jumps out at you and comes with glowing reviews all over the dust jacket but it does deserve a read if you are interested in Russian literature. Along with other accounts of the communist years this is one of the few so far that I have read that is set against the background of the Brezhnev era and it is different from other novels as a result. There is no civil war, no Stalin and no second world war. But there is a weary awareness about the lies and the terror that has gone before and the awful acceptance that to get on you still have to kowtow to that system.

Summary
Junior researcher with beard and a free mind – full of historical communist figures – gets caught up in his own fantasy and is crushed by the state leaving you to wonder just who is mad

Version read – Paladin paperback

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