It used to be said that poets could move the minds of kings who in turn moved the minds of society. Today, sadly, it appears there are no kings (world leaders) with minds to be moved--or, perhaps, artists seem no longer inspired by that intention.
No one who has followed Yevgeny Yevtushenko's recent condemnation of Soviet censorship could accuse the Soviet Union's foremost poet of failing to press for an open literature for his beloved citizenry. In this relentlessly powerful fable, the poet of "Babi Yar" is back, indicting a Soviet and, indeed, a world society for its unwillingness to be moved in times of moral turpitude.
With marvelous satirical perception, this finely-wrought novel of disillusionment and hope moves between the book's spiritual hero Ardabiev, who has discovered the cancer-curing plant Ardabiola, and an uncaring Sovietocracy characterized on one extreme by superficial materialism and on the other by "hooliganism."
To call it a novel of oppression ignores its humor. Of Ardabiev's feeding Ardabiola--and small talk--to his laboratory rat:
"My wife decided that I had finally gone off my head and gave me an ultimatum: 'It's me or the rat.' I chose the rat. . . ."
Calling it allegory ignores its metaphysics. Ardabiev offers Ardabiola to a girl, despondent over a butchered abortion, pleased that like all idealists he is "of most use to mankind today. . . . If someone even thinks that life has no meaning, it at once stops being meaningless in the process."
Calling it fantasy ignores its humanistic determinism. During Ardabiev's father's funeral, we learn that three youths garrote a taxi driver because they "didn't have money for a cassette player."
"It's a void of feeling that's to blame. . . . It's the consumption we still haven't learned to cure."
Like the metaphorical paralysis of Gregor Samsa waking up a cockroach in Kafka's "Metamorphosis," Ardabiev, the idealist "of most use to mankind" is literally mugged and beaten into mental paralysis for a pair of Western jeans, a tragedy rumored to be based on the beating of the writer Vasily Rasputin.
Society suffers from "the tuberculosis of the soul," Yevtushenko warns and laments incipient anti-humanism:
". . . You can beat the Pushkin-like qualities out of people. Not just with a knuckleduster but with education, lying, words, indifference. You can make someone forget how they used to think. . . . Don't give in, Ardabiev! Try and remember!"
Fortunately for mankind the healing power of Ardabiola, absent its creator, still has a life of its own. Likewise, art, which tragically oppressed, survives ignorance, censorship or persecution.
"Russian People," Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, "live fragments of endlessly long and powerful life spans, and even if they linger in them only a moment, there still lie over these minutes the dimensions of gigantic intentions. . . ." Not since Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Illych" has such gigantic intention been so compassionately achieved as in this masterpiece written by a poet of conscience whose own art continues to have a life of its own.