A brilliant, richly allusive novel from the acclaimed Russian writer (Pushkin House, 1987, etc.), chronicling a search for the soul of a man and his country. Written over the last decade and ending with the 1991 coup, the three tales that comprise this novel present three way stations on the narrator's pilgrimage and reflect the enormous political changes taking place in Russia. A series of encounters in settings lush with spiritual and historical associations enable the protagonist to explore humanity's purpose, its relationship with God and other animals, and the ethical state of Russia. The journey begins, in ``Birds or the Catechesis of Man,'' at Russia's most western point, a spit of land that juts into the Baltic Sea, with the narrator raising queries about the environment and the role of atomic power with a scientist working at a nearby research station where birds are studied. In ``Man in a Landscape,'' set somewhere outside Moscow, he debates with a painter who asserts that ``the world was completely ready when man appeared in it. Man created nothing...didn't create art, either.'' On the shores of the Black Sea, in ``Awaiting Monkeys,'' he meets up again with the scientist and the painter, works as a literary critic, acts in a movie, and then, moving back and forth between Moscow and the Black Sea shore during the Gorbachev years, on the day of the coup experiences a consoling epiphany: an army of angels in the air who ``smelled of the fire of their tireless battle'' for Russia. The title refers to an experiment in ``keeping monkeys in uncongenial climatic zones under almost congenial natural conditions. In other words, free.'' As the narrator ironically observes, ``the monkey is free in Russia, under socialism! We're not free but the monkey is.'' A quintessentially Russian pilgrim's progress, infused with fierce intellectual energy, searing irony, and an anguished love for a long-suffering country and its people.
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