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Further, even more impressive tales of Abkhazia, the Caucasian province which Iskander portrayed (before and after the Russian Revolution) in the scattershot vignettes of Sandro of Chegem (1983). Again there is the great manly vigor of the populace, a central Prayer Tree, pervasive hatred of the mythical Endurskies--who represent every small-minded tendency (and easily encompass most of official Soviet reality). This time, however, Uncle Sandro, hero and local beloved, is now aged--and is more often offstage than on. Still, this does nothing to deter the unique brand of Chegem comedy--which continues to ramble here and there, in stories that are almost more sung than told: Iskander has a remarkable range of tones. Among the subject-matters and flights of fancy: slave-owning; a version of the Jesus gospel; a bitterly funny recounting of the terror that a good painting can throw into the heart of a bureaucrat; another hilarious scene of Chegem drunkenness; sharp jabs at Soviet revisionism. Plus--impish literary honesty, digressions, and feints: ""I have a feeling I'm about to begin confessing my weaknesses. A tried and true device. It's what I built my literary career on. I thought the device had exhausted itself by now, but evidently not. It turns out to be altogether inexhaustible. The reader likes it when he feels a little smarter than the author. He experiences a surprising rush of energy, merriment, and, in the long run, gratitude to the author. The author, in turn, likes it when he succeeds in pulling the reader's leg a little. He too feels merry. This way, we cheer each other up and the evening's gone before you know it."" Iskander must be an unusually troublesome, nearly intolerable presence for official Soviet literature--not just for his sallies, but because he wraps virtually sacrosanct folk literature around him while he undermines the establishment. For American readers, on the other hand, these often-longwinded stories may require some patience--but the abundant comic insouciance, to an even greater degree than in Sandro of Chegem, is richly rewarding.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1984
Publisher: Random House