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A Cup of Coffee With Julian Semyonov

July 03, 1988|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

The announcement by the International Assn. of Crime Writers of "Semana Negra" (see The Book Trade, Page 8) prompted me to re-read my notes on a meeting last fall with Julian Semyonov, one of the godfathers of that recently formed group. Semyonov was in Los Angeles then to promote "Tass Is Authorized to Announce" (Riverrun Press), his novel about brave and resourceful KGB agents who foil a CIA-neo-Nazi plot against a Marxist state in Africa.

As the plot of that novel might suggest, Semyonov, a best-selling author in the Soviet Union, is no dissident. According to Soviet emigre Vassily Aksyonov, Semyonov is the Soviet Robert Ludlum. Semyonov's books may be sold on the black market, but that means little: Anything that anyone wants in the Soviet Union ends up on the black market. What counts is that he has official approval. He is tolerated even when he breaks the official rules.

Before Semyonov's arrival, I had done a little checking and learned from Wolfgang Kasack's "Lexikon der russischen Literatur ab 1917" that, well before the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Semyonov, then a journalist, had been posted for a time to Kabul, a fact not mentioned in the information sent us by his publisher or in any press coverage I had seen. Why Kabul? I wondered; and when we met, I asked.

Semyonov answered that he had been sent to Kabul because he knew Farsi, one of the Afghan languages. He knew Farsi because he had attended the Oriental Institute of Moscow University. He had attended the Oriental Institute because he would not otherwise have been admitted to that university at all, being the son of an out-of-favor, once-imprisoned, old-line Jewish Bolshevik. The Oriental Institute was a relatively sleepy, unpopular corner of the university, he said, where political credentials were examined less carefully. For all that, when his father was imprisoned a second time, in 1950, Semyonov was expelled both from Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, and from the Oriental Institute. He was reinstated three years later, but only after Stalin had died.

An involved explanation, but to the point: Semyonov's long career in international intrigue began in the domestic intrigue of college admissions; and from that beginning, we may trace a plot within the plot of his rise to fame. The outer plot is his journey from the margin to his present position as consummate Soviet literary insider. The inner plot is his way of bringing a little of the margin along with him. Though he faithfully grooms the official Soviet self-image in his fiction, he also seeks where he can to rehabilitate his father's generation and to embarrass his father's persecutors by mentioning their domestic failures--crime on the streets, prostitution, bureaucratic paralysis, etc.

Such candor about both the past and the present is increasingly the order of the day in Moscow. But it was not so in 1965, Semyonov stressed, when he put Marshal Blyukher in his novel, "No Passport Needed." The name of Marshal Blyukher means nothing to American readers. To many ordinary Russians, however, or so Semyonov claims, it stands--more than do the names of Trotsky or Bukharin--for the betrayal of the 1917 Revolution. Blyukher, a military hero until he was purged in the late 1930s, was famous for saying to Stalin's face that he opposed him "because I am a Bolshevik." Semyonov's account of his literary politics is self-serving, but it is also coherent. He may be no Anatoli Rybakov, but in a notoriously difficult environment, he can point to at least a few moments when his work belongs to itself rather than to the party or even to the public.

"Tass Is Authorized to Announce" is, for all that, a boring novel. For American readers, it might actually gain in interest if the Americans in it were more interestingly offensive. Uncle Sam is the narrator's black prince, to be sure, but there isn't much real venom in his CIA minions. As in so much of our own spy fiction (or better, our covert-action fiction), plot is everything. The competing brands of ideology mean no more than flags at the Olympics. The popular appeal of the books is that of pure contest.

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