on the Head of a Pin
Reviewer: Jonathan Z. Ludwig
By Juri Druzhnikov. Translated from Russian by Thomas Moore. London: Peter Owen (email@example.com), 2003. 556 pages. Hardcover. $34.95.
Originally published in Russia in 1979, this novel is set in late 1960s Moscow, at the time when Khrushchev-era reforms were being turned back by the nascent Brezhnev-era repressions. The setting for this novel, which was written between 1969 and 1979, is a fictitious Soviet national newspaper, Trudovaya Pravda, the organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU. The employees of this paper, their lives, concerns, and machinations represent a microcosm of the Brezhnev-era period of stagnation, where inaction and self-preservation were the rules by which everyone lived.
The novel opens with Igor Makartsev, the Executive Editor of Trudovaya Pravda, suffering a severe heart attack. It is slowly revealed that this heart attack was brought on by the appearance first of a mysterious, highly subversive, and illegal manuscript Russia in 1839, marked as samizdat, and second by the author himself, the Marquis Astolphe de Custine. In a scene reminiscent of Bulgakov, to whom Druzhnikov has been previously compared, the Marquis engages Makartsev, as the latter reads the manuscript, in a philosophical debate as to whether Russia’s rulers treat their own people with the dignity and respect that should be accorded any human being. The issues discussed within the manuscript, although written about 1839 Russia, reflect issues of concern in the Soviet Union of the 1960s: “Russians. . . have nothing in reality. Russia is a country of façades (77).” “There are no great people in Russia because there are no independent characters (78).” “Society here. . . began with abuse (84).” “The contemporary political situation in Russia can be defined in a few words: this is a country in which the government says whatever it wants, because it alone has a right to speak (86).” Makartsev, a candidate member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, is forced to defend the Soviet Union, which he sees as the target of this manuscript, a defense that Druzhnikov would have us believe leads directly to his heart attack. Unable to defend a Soviet Union whose core philosophy of a lack of spirituality is called into question by the appearance of the long-deceased de Custine, Makartsev’s body simply shuts down.
With Makartsev in the hospital, the employees at Trudovaya Pravda are thrown into a period of uncertainty that recalls any major change in the power structure of the Soviet Union. This period is made more uncertain by the appointment of Makartsev’s unknown and, as it turns out, very ambitious deputy Stephan Yagubov as Acting Editor. At the forefront of the second half of the novel is the search to find answers to the questions that surround the appearance of the manuscript: Who sent it to (or placed it in) Makartsev’s office? Why was it sent to him? And what to do with it, in the likely and almost certain event that it is a provocation, before it is discovered by the authorities. The latter question in particular now falls to Yagubov who, as Acting Editor, is now responsible for everything. Ultimately Ivlev, a Senior Correspondent for the paper, is arrested when the KGB link him to the article, although he is clearly not responsible for its appearance. Yakov Rappaport, an elderly Jewish veteran who spent two terms in the Gulag, provides a solution that removes any responsibility for the manuscript from Makartsev. Rappaport is the author of every speech that any Soviet Party official ever makes in public. He is also the driving force behind every campaign waged by the newspaper, as he writes all of the letters to the editor himself and is completely loyal to his boss. It is he who, in suspecting that Yagubov is responsible for planting the manuscript in Makartsev’s office, in turn plants an equally subversive manuscript on him: Impotentocracy: The Physiological Reasons for Ideological Decrepitude, a clear assault on the Brezhnev-era gerontocracy. It too is labeled samizdat.
Amidst this major story line Druzhnikov introduces and presents the life stories of numerous other characters whose smaller dramas also satirize the political, bureaucratic, and social realities of the 1960s. While his father is in the hospital, Makartsev’s son Boris drives drunk and kills two pedestrians. With his father out of commission, a crime that would otherwise be ignored because of Makartsev’s status continues to be investigated. Boris’s mother, herself of questionable background because she was once married to a Jew, is unable to obtain anyone’s help because no one is willing to step forward without knowing what effect it could have on them in the future. There is a love triangle between Ivlev, who is pursued by Nadia Sirotkina, a young member of the secretarial pool with high-level connections who, in turn, is desired by the Georgian Sasha Kakabadze. Everyone whose life Nadia touches, including Ivlev, Sasha, and Boris, finds himself in grave trouble and usually under arrest for some time. There is the bizarre story of the mentally ill Marshal Katukov who wants his rambling World War II memoirs published and is refused. When he appears at the offices of Trudovaya Pravda, he is told that they are being held until May Day celebrations, whereupon Katukov warns them that he will be back with tanks if they are not published. And there is Sisyphus Sagaydik, an impotentologist, and his assistant St. Alla, a deaf mute said to help him cure top Party officials of their impotence.
While the actual time period presented in the novel is quite outdated, the themes are not. Just as the descriptions of nineteenth-century Russia are seen as true in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, so do the themes carry over to present-day Russia: petty bureaucrats climbing over each other to reach the top; a government that wishes to speak with only one voice, drives away any remnants of an opposition press, and imposes censorship at every level; and a possible return to a cult of personality. In this way, Druzhnikov’s novel is timeless. ∆
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