What is man's relationship to nature? To God? To other human beings and to himself?
Andrei Bitov, one of Russia's most gifted avant-garde writers, addresses all these issues in "The Monkey Link," but neither the questions nor the answers are easy to discern.
For one thing, Bitov began this novel in the early 1970s, during the Brezhnev freeze, when only canny indirection could save him from exile or worse (though even then, his works were banned in the Soviet Union). For another, Bitov doesn't write in the familiar realistic tradition of Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Solzhenitsyn but rather in the tradition of Mikhail Bulgakov and Vladimir Nabokov, fabulists and jugglers.
Confess: Even when Nabokov, that famed butterfly collector, was at his most accessible--in "Lolita," say--didn't those of us who weren't Russians or scholars, or both, find that swarms of jokes, puns and literary references were fluttering out of reach of our nets? Yet weren't we delighted with the few velvety creatures we did manage to catch?
"The Monkey Link" has to be read in the same spirit. All the more so because Bitov, unlike Nabokov, wasn't writing for a Western audience. The horrors of Soviet rule are both omnipresent in this novel and nearly invisible. During a discussion at a Black Sea cafe about the dwindling numbers of an ethnic minority, the Abkhaz, one character exclaims:
"Damn Lavrenty! How many we might have been. . . ."
And unless we happen to recall that Lavrenty was the first name of Beria, chief of Stalin's secret police, this allusion to mass deportations and mass murder goes unnoticed.
Fortunately, Susan Brownsberger, who also translated Bitov's 1987 novel "Pushkin House," explains many such references. She points out that the route of the author-narrator's "pilgrimage" roughly follows the line of deepest Nazi penetration during World War II. She shows us how "The Monkey Link" echoes, among other sources, Dante, Goethe, the Bible, Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus," Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" and the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece.
Unaided by Brownsberger's crib notes, this is what we see:
In the opening section, "Birds," the narrator visits the first of a series of "ambiguous paradises," a wildlife preserve on a sandspit in the Baltic. At the western tip of the empire, he can wander freely amid beautiful scenery and chat about ecology with a "priest of Soviet science," but there is no escape except upward (where the birds are), and even the birds are being systematically trapped and studied.
In "Man in a Landscape," things get livelier. At a czarist estate being restored near Moscow, the narrator meets an artist, Pavel Petrovich. The philosophical discourses resume, fueled by vodka. As in "Birds," the talk is strikingly erudite and original. To get more liquor, the two descend into the cellars of a 16th-Century church--symbolically, into medieval Russia.
If the theme in "Birds" is pollution--and its subtext that the Soviet regime is spiritual pollution--"Man in a Landscape" is about the effort to rise above or sink beneath this pollution and reconnect with God. The narrator is arrested for drunkenness, jailed and released. Pavel Petrovich is waiting for him. They drink and talk some more. The narrator stumbles into another semi-paradise, an orchard at sunset--but by now it's 1979, and the Soviet Union is invading Afghanistan.
In the third section, "Awaiting Monkeys (Transfiguration)," the era of Gorbachev and glasnost has come. The narrator can speak openly of the KGB and satirize Soviet literature and film. But with freedom has come an awareness of his own complicity with tyranny. At a literary gathering in the Caucasus, he seduces a woman (named, suggestively, Margarita); then he seems to vanish. The bird scientist and Pavel Petrovich, taking the part of Faust and Mephistopheles, appear as if in his place, arguing out the conflicts in his divided mind.
Later the narrator finds himself in Stalin's hometown in Georgia, cringing at the foot of a statue of the dictator. But he also has a religious experience when he meets "free" monkeys struggling to survive in a mountain preserve in the Caucasus far colder than their native climate. He returns to Moscow to face the tanks of the old regime's 1991 coup attempt as they rumble toward the democrats' barricades.
Think of Bitov as a Volga boatman, tugging his tow rope through a fog that gathers and disperses. When the fog thins out, we glimpse flashes of brilliant lyricism and humor; when it momentarily rolls away, we realize that the boat he is pulling is nothing less than Russian culture, risen to the surface after having been submerged for most of the century.