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Kangaroo: by Yuz Aleshkovsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.95; 278 pp.)

July 06, 1986|Ronald Florence | Florence is a novelist and historian who reviews regularly for The Times. and

The repressive world of samizdat , of dog-eared, hectographed manuscripts, circulated in repressed secrecy, takes its toll on writers. Yuz Aleshkovsky is a veteran of that world, and in "Kangaroo," he takes his revenge with a torrent of scatological satire that leaves few targets in Soviet history or society untouched. The slangy Russian and sexual descriptions that read like 1950s hard porn leave no doubt that the intent of the author is vehemence. The targets of the satire, unfortunately, are not easily deciphered.

The plot is a complex recursive loop from the conviction of the hero, a Russian pickpocket named Fan Fanych, for the rape and murder of an aging kangaroo in the Moscow Zoo, to scenes in a spaceship, to the Yalta Conference, to a Siberian prison camp where Fanych engages in debates with fervent old Bolsheviks. Keeping track of the narrative and the whirls of fantasy, sorting out the scenes in which the hero is a kangaroo, a rat-catcher with a third eye at the back of his head, or debating Hitler, puts considerable demands on a reader. Making sense of the myriad obscure references will challenge the most avid historians and students of Soviet pop culture. It is enough to be familiar with Chekists, Ilya Ehrenburg, Radishchev, Krupskaya, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and the patronymics of obscure Bolsheviks. The reader also must contend with Ordzhonikidze, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Ivan Pyriev and dozens of other proper names, few of which can be parsed from context, and none of which is explained in a glossary or footnotes.

The real problem with "Kangaroo," for an American reader, is that the book does not convey a reality against which to measure the satire. What is it in Soviet life that inspires recurrent themes like characters constantly soiling their pants or the crude sexual fantasies of the hero? Hit by a broadside barrage, we are left wondering how to rank the pains and suffering: Which is worse, the excesses of repression, the dulling debates of arcane ideology, the warehouse camps of Siberia, the lack of privacy in crowded communal apartments, or the failure of technology that leads to mistaken indictments and convictions? "Kangaroo" hints at the questions, but the characters are so remote and the reality so obscure that we cannot feel or begin to comprehend the human impact of that culture.

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