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Writer Rediscovers Russian's Magic : Books: Sasha Sokolov, author of "School for Fools," has returned to Moscow after a stormy exit in 1975.

November 09, 1989|DAVID REMNICK | THE WASHINGTON POST

RAKOVO, U.S.S.R. — "Rats," he says. "Hear them? Rats in the walls." The face, a Cubist mass of angles and planes, cracks into a giddy grin--the smile, it turns out, of a man who has come home after a long exile.

All around him now, after 14 years of New England solitude and twang, the juicy, popped sounds of Russian, each glottal stop a seed, each word an acoustical event. "Listen," he says, holding a finger to his lips. "You can hear the rats talking. They're talking Russian, I think."

Sasha Sokolov, the son of a Soviet spy who knew the Rosenbergs in the 1940s, the father of a child he has not seen since his exile, has returned to Moscow after a stormy exit in 1975.

He is back not to see his father and mother--"I have nothing to say to them"--but rather to hear Russian talk, Russian stories. And unlike the dozens of other exiled artists who have been able to visit for the first time in years, Sokolov has a "secret plan": Although he has kept his Canadian passport, he wants to stay. "Even now, after a few weeks, when I hear the language," he says, "I begin to shake."

Sokolov is one of those rare novelists whose primary concern is the praise and exploration of a language rather than the development of a position. In this, he is in the line of Gogol, Lermontov, Nabokov. "For me, the Bible says it: The Word is God," Sokolov says, "and God is more important than life."

A critic once wrote of Sokolov's first novel, "School for Fools"--a polyphony of voices centered on a country school for psychotic children--that it sounded as if the last 50 pages of Joyce's "Ulysses" had been rewritten, miraculously, in Russian.

Sokolov wrote "School for Fools" when he was working as a game warden on the Volga River in the early 1970s. Although there was nothing overtly political about its content, he knew that its style, its flights of language, its flights away from the stale ground of socialist realism, represented an independence that would prevent publication. So he decided to do what such Soviet artists as Alexander Solzhenitsyn had done, knowing the choice was bound to land him in trouble: He sent his manuscript abroad.

In Sokolov's case, the book went, through friends, to the late Carl Proffer, a Michigan academic whose pioneering Ardis Publishers had brought to light many important modern Soviet writers. Proffer immediately recognized the greatness, as well as the strangeness, of "School for Fools."

Nabokov, an astringent critic who could barely tolerate Dostoevski and summarily dismissed Gorky, Malraux and Freud, read "School for Fools" and pronounced it "an enchanting, tragic and touching book."

Sokolov's second novel, "Between the Dog and the Wolf," has so far defeated the efforts of three good translators and may never make it into English. However, Grove Press is publishing a translation of the third novel, "Astrophobia."

And now, at the country house of a childhood friend, Sokolov sits listening to the birch branches pop and burn in the stove. There are steaming glasses of strong brewed tea on the pine table. The rats scurry inside the walls. Sokolov's daughter, a pretty, owlish girl of 16 who lives in Moscow, watches her father with a peculiar fascination. To her, he is a name, a family legend, returned.

"It's funny," Sokolov says. "This is the second time I've 'come home for good.' This time feels better." Sokolov was born in Ottawa in 1943. His father, Vsevold, and his mother, Lidia, were working in the Soviet Embassy in the Canadian capital, ostensibly as diplomats.

His father had the rank of deputy military attache and worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence.

'Barely Knew Father'

"As far as I know, he was sent to Canada by Stalin himself. He took part in stealing blueprints of the A-bomb through the Rosenbergs. But it's still all very vague," he says.

"I do know my father regularly went to New York to see the Rosenbergs and other Communists there. But he would only make slight mention of all this. He never told any stories. But there were relatives who knew them well and talked to me about it later on. I hardly saw him. I barely knew who my father was in Stalin's last years. He was never around."

One of the stories about his father that Sokolov heard "was right out of a detective movie": Just after the war, when the Soviets were struggling to develop an atom bomb, a car filled with Soviet spies, including Vsevold Sokolov, and carrying a suitcase containing secret blueprints, was racing an FBI chase team from New York to Boston.

At the harbor in Boston, the FBI searched the car and a Soviet ship, finding nothing. "Later, it became known that they had slipped it to a Soviet submarine nearby."

Some time after that, an embassy officer in Ottawa, Igor Kuzenko, defected to the West and told authorities everything he knew of the spy ring that was working out of the embassy in Canada.

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