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Starring Joe Stalin as Himself : ASTROPHOBIA by Sasha Sokolov translated by Michael Henry Heim (Grove Weidenfeld: $21.50; 385 pp.; 0-8021-1087-8)

February 11, 1990|Alexander Zholkovsky | Zholkovsky is professor of Slavic languages and literatures at USC. and

Sasha Sokolov is a--many believe, the --leading voice of Russian prose today. In what has amounted to a passing of the lyre, Nabokov called Sokolov's first novel, "A School for Fools," an "enchanting, tragic and touching book." One wonders, however, whether Nabokov (who once dismissed Pasternak's "Zhivago" as the "adventures of a sentimental doctor") would have been as charitable to the threateningly consummate "Astrophobia."

The widely translated "School for Fools" is the definitive classic of Soviet "youth prose," narrated (with the possible help of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury") by the "we" of a schizophrenic adolescent. Sokolov's second novel, "Between Dog and Wolf," a surrealist variation on "village prose," may prove as untranslatable as "Finnegan's Wake." "Astrophobia," his third and latest, is probably his "Petersburg" (the 1915 novel by the James Joyce of Russian modernism, Andrei Bely).

"Astrophobia" also is a hilariously shocking book. Tongue in cheek, Sokolov reinvents all recent and not-so-recent Russian history. He writes against the background of the Soviet literary antipodes and revels in playing the official pole against the dissident. For example, since Solzhenitsyn's "First Circle," many have tried their hand at portraying Stalin.

Sokolov presents us with a likable Uncle Joseph who dies in a prank played by the children of the Kremlin elite, among them the narrator. They hide his dachshund, "the faithful Russland," in his wardrobe and scramble up the stove. "The unsuspecting Joseph . . . shuffled to the wardrobe. . . . The Baskerville hound leaped out and onto his liberator's chest. 'It's an ambush!'. . ." The Generalissimo's aorta burst. "A comet, flashing across the window like a murky eye, underscored the fatality of the event." The children, "feeling . . . guilt without blame" for "the crime of the century," were severely punished--"with exile and the camps: . . . the Artek in the Crimea, . . . the spa at Piatigorsk from (Lermontov's) 'A Hero of Our Time' "

All this, of course, is sheer blasphemy against the pieties of de-Stalinization: Uncle Joseph parades as liberator and victim, and the exiles go to elitist resorts and to scout, not concentration, camps. Yet the madcap subversion of dissident discourse is subtly reconciled with one of its mainstays: Stalin dies of paranoid fear.

The episode is fashioned out of purely literary props. Lermontov and Conan Doyle are only two of the many intertextual strings strummed by the narrator. The ominous comet and the stove (in the famous Kutuzov hut) come from "War and Peace," while "Guilt Without Blame" is the title of a classic Russian melodrama, aptly coupled here with the tabloid "crime of the century."

The "faithful Russland" is borrowed--and brazenly demoted to dachshund--from a dissident tale about a ruthless German shepherd, symbol of the Gulag era. (The dog's name has been skillfully altered by the translator, who also has thrown in the Baskerville connection to compensate for the Russian allusions. Michael Henry Heim, the translator of Chekhov, Kundera and Aksyonov, has created an eminently readable English counterpart of the formidable original.)

If the Baskerville dachshund is a queer bird, so is everything else in these pseudo-memoirs from the 21st Century, i.e. literally from beyond history. In a true post-modernist spirit, "Astrophobia" is a novel about the retrospective compatibility of all of history's vagaries and verbalizations.

The cumulative effect of "Astrophobia" resembles Komar and Melamid's painting, "Comrade Stalin and the Muses," in which the socialist-realist Stalin, generalissimo uniform and all, is waited upon by classicist muses in fluttering gowns. But Sokolov goes them one better. His narrator Palisander--a Kremlin orphan, Stalin's involuntary and Brezhnev's unsuccessful assassin, seducer of Madame Brezhnev, prolific literary genius, and final ruler of Russia, His Eternity--combines Stalin and the muses in one person.

This pivotal fusion is rooted in the master myth of Russian literature: the opposition/equation of poet and czar (a Romantic notion perpetuated in Russia by literature's role as the shadow government). On the solemn side, it has resulted in the celebrated martyrology of Russian writers; on the carnivalesque, in Gogol's and Dostoevsky's menagerie of obsessive graphomaniacs, mad or feather-brained impostors, grand as well as petty inquisitors, and other verbal would-be saviors of Russia.

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