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FICTION

December 23, 1990|Michael Harris

NO RETURN by Alexander Kabakov, translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney (William Morrow: $15.95; 94 pp.) . This novella has become a best seller in the Soviet Union, warning already jittery citizens that bloodshed and chaos will reign if Mikhail Gorbachev's experiments with perestroika fail.

The hero, Yuri Ilich, is a scientist who has developed a method of time travel. Two KGB agents persuade him to find out what will be happening in 1993--five years after Alexander Kabakov's book originally appeared. Ilich lands in the middle of a nightmare. Much of the U.S.S.R. has splintered away. A right-wing nationalist regime has taken over what remains. Food and consumer goods have almost disappeared. Gangs of scimitar-swinging Muslim separatists, club-wielding anti-Semites, secret police and bandits have turned the streets of Moscow into killing fields.

According to his U.S. publisher, Kabakov, a veteran journalist, is a supporter of Gorbachev, which is nice to know. "No Return" could be read just as easily as a tract against perestroika; its most forceful passages express public backlash against the "lousy intelligentsia" that disturbed the peace of the Brezhnev era.

The ambiguity of its message may help explain why the book is so popular. As fiction, it isn't anything special. It doesn't even try to describe how Ilich travels in time or explore the implications of such a feat. His adventures in the dark cul-de-sacs of the future (in the company of a hostile young woman from the provinces) will seem routine to Americans brought up on movies such as "Mad Max." But Kabakov must have had little difficulty arousing a home audience all too aware that bloodshed and chaos can be more than words.

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