IT'S HARD TO BE A RUSSIAN SPY by Alexei Korotyukov


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One nightmarish day in the life of narrator Alexei Putyata, a 30-ish Moscow actor who believes--not without reason--that his every move is being monitored by the KGB. After all, Putyata's mother (who abandoned him at birth) is a top KGB agent in America. (""I imagined her to be a stately gray-haired lady with powerful hands and a rapacious face."") And now indeed Putyata receives a creepy KGB visit--to inform him that his mother has died, to order his appearance at her secret KGB funeral. Before he can find his way to this gathering, however, Putyata tangles with KGB mind-readers in taxi-driver disguise, then another bizarre driver--a terminally ill stranger who persuasively begs Putyata to bed and marry his incipient widow Lyuda. Next comes the funeral itself: an ordeal that features a huge, hideous portrait of the deceased, an appearance by KGB chief Andropov, and Putyata's panic in the bathroom--where he's firmly soothed by a doctor and two KGB men. (""The money it would take for someone to care for you and love you the way the KGB can!"") Then, at the cemetery, there's a different view of the KGB--""the people who were in power, who mocked us and danced on our corpses."" And from there on, despite a love-at-first-sight romance with lusty Lyuda, it's downhill all the way: an attack from a drunken mob; a glimpse of the Russian future in the person of monster-child Vano (biting, swearing, mocking); a street encounter with an old, dying, blind man--which fills Putyata with empathy for tormented Soviet Jews; and the final, inevitable blow. . . as Putyata is forced to join the KGB, taking on the undercover role of an American homosexual. (""I smeared the blood and tears across my face and mumbled: 'I am at my country's service.'"") First-novelist Korotyukov, a Russian-Jewish ÉmigrÉ who came to the US in 1974, marbles this slight black-comedy with bitter, bleak musings on everyday Moscow life--depression, drinking, filth: ""What faces I saw in the crowd! Gray, bloodless, with neither lips nor eyes, a motley of dirty burlap. . . . And we were supposed to be progressive humanity."" And though less detailed or vivid than other evocations of urban-Russian blues (by Aksyonov, Erofeev, et al.), this uneven tale does periodically flare with Kafka-esque dread, Gogol-esque mania, and dour anti-Soviet humor.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Long Shadow/Pocket Books--dist. by Simon & Schuster