THE RED CABBAGE CAFE by Jonathan Treitel (Pantheon Books: $18.95; 185 pp.) . This is a novel that shouldn't work but does. It's a comedy--sometimes even a farce--about the consolidation of Soviet power in the early 1920s, Lenin's death and his replacement by Stalin. The narrator is a born straight man, Humphrey Veil, an "Anglo-American-German-Jewish Marxist engineer" hired to help design the Moscow subway.
Humphrey, earnest and slightly dim, falls in with a group of bohemians, including Sophia, the owner of a waxworks museum who makes copies of--and sometimes even stand-ins for--Romanovs and Reds alike. (If you think that's Lenin's embalmed body in the mausoleum, Jonathan Treitel says, think again.) In the spirit of socialism, Humphrey shares Sophia's favors with Gritz, a jackbooted poet whose loopy Futurist verses Treitel quotes from time to time.
Why does "The Red Cabbage Cafe" work? Because Treitel, for a first novelist, has an unusually delicate sense of tone. He tells outrageous lies but remains true to the underlying reality. Almost unnoticed (in part because Humphrey believes Soviet leaders should have dictatorial powers), oppression and betrayal creep up on the merry threesome, as they crept up on millions of others. Humphrey's fate is to be a cuckold, a prisoner of the Gulag and, most tragicomically, a hero in Nazi Germany about to be replaced by his own "double," but Treitel keeps our eyes on the fancy footwork of his skaters, not on the rapidly thinning ice beneath them.