It is odd enough that two novels about Jewish writers living under the thumb of Soviet censorship, each with a wife and two children and a beloved mistress, should appear in this country at the same time, but a more surprising similarity is that both are so strikingly removed in tone from what one thinks of as characteristically Eastern European.
The chilling humor of a Milan Kundera or Josef Skvorecky or the didactic blasts of Solzhenitsyn barely echo. Instead, the Czechoslovakian Ivan Klima's style is dreamy and almost submarine, while Felix Roziner, writing in Russian, is more straightforwardly naturalistic. Each novel, in its earnestness, in its desire to be friendly, open, nice and liked, and in a recalcitrant preoccupation with private life, could easily, apart from its subject matter, be American.
But that's a large "apart from." Aaron Finkelmeyer is the Jew of questionable jokes, from his "big schnoz" and skinny, noodly physique to his name, in a country--Khrushchev's Russia--where being a Jew is no joke. It is, rather, a ticket to hardship: On the papers that citizens must at all times bear with them, "Jew" is a nationality, like Lithuanian, Tongor--or Russian. A Jew, however many centuries in Russia his family may have put in, is not Russian.
Finkelmeyer has grown up in the Jewish ghetto of Moscow, where indoor plumbing is rare and lone survivors of exterminations to the west not uncommon. After flings with the sexy wife of an aparatchik and a platonic one with a poetic librarian, he marries such a survivor, one his family has taken in, and settles down to a life of more or less drudgery, having been excluded from the better universities by virtue of incorrect ethnic origin.
He remains, we are told, a gifted poet, and the lover of a Lithuanian beauty he rescues while on a business trip in his unlikely work, for the Ministry of Fisheries in Siberia. It is in his literary career that one recognizes the ironies typically associated with the subversive art of totalitarian regimes.
His talent has gotten him off some of the more onerous duties when doing his obligatory army service, writing patriotic verse he abhors. It becomes a popular, ever-in-print volume under the Russian pseudonym A. Yefimov.
As a way of publishing his real poems, he presents them as translations by "Aion Neprigen" from the Tongor. The Tongor people, somewhere between Eskimos and Lapps in their way of life, are very much ethnically correct, and topics that would be forbidden others are allowed them. Aaron chooses the clownish and illiterate Danil Menakin to be his beard, naming him as the original Tongor poet. But Menakin finds he likes his fame so much that he wants to eliminate the goose that lays the golden literary eggs. In the end, Finkelmeyer's life pretty much depends on proving not only that he is "A Certain Finkelmeyer," as a denunciatory headline has him, but A. Yefimov and Aion Neprigen, poet.
Roziner's samizdat novel was written between 1971 and 1975 (he later emigrated to Israel and is now a fellow at Harvard). Klima, who has previously published two collections of stories here, at the time of this novel's completion in 1986 also could not publish at home, in Czechoslovakia. This is likewise the situation of his narrator who, contrary to the book's publicity copy, is not compelled to work as a street sweeper (garbage collector, that is--the translation is British). He seems to have adequate income from foreign royalties, and from his wife's work as a psychotherapist.
His temporary choice of occupation therefore is regarded as mildly perverse if anything, as indeed it is, but it does provide the most colorful material of the book, its motivating metaphors, the eye-catching title, and many opportunities for him to loll about in his lover's studio or picturesque rented room where she hides out from her husband and young daughter.
"Rubbish is immortal," the narrator expounds, "Rubbish is like death. What else is there that is so indestructible?" And what is more, "There is little that comes so close to death as fulfilled love." These sentences from the early part of the novel might be called the premises of what amounts to a long achronological meditation in which the narrator sorts through the accumulated rubbish of his life.
He writes about the Nazis--who impounded him as a boy and killed off all of his family but his now-dying father--as monumental garbage men disposing of human lives; about industrial technology as a way of turning the world into garbage; about scavengers of the garbage he gathers who turn their findings into sales, and of the way garbage ultimately is turned only into other kinds of garbage.