An inventive first novel briskly reimagines 20th-century Russian history.
The story’s first half (titled “Pre-”) is set in 1910, at the remote railway station in Astapovo where Count Leo Tolstoy, having fled his estate, lies dying. The world beats a path to Astapovo. Young cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin works with the “Pathé frères” news service, which hopes to film the revered writer’s final hours. A Dr. Strangelovian scientist, Professor Vorobev, offers to apply to the moribund Count his newly perfected technique for preserving “the qualities of the vital force in a dead animal”—as evidenced by the stuffed rat Vorobev carries everywhere with him. And, in the wake of the failed 1905 Revolution, comrades Lenin and Stalin scheme to share in the world attention focused on Astapovo, reasoning that “in the right hands, the Count can be transformed into a revolutionary hero. . . .” The rich comedy of these early scenes is skillfully darkened in the second half (entitled “Post-”), which takes place in 1919, after WWI and the successful October Revolution have totally altered the political and economic landscape. Kalfus (stories: PU-239, 1999, etc.) now turns his attention to pseudonymous “Comrade Astapov” (whom we’ve met previously), a veteran of the European War and connoisseur of the still-developing art of cinema, whose technical knowledge is now employed by the eponymous Commissariat, a recently formed ministry entrusted with reshaping all art forms in a manner suitable for the supposedly obedient (often recalcitrant) masses. Astapov’s duties lead to an unexpected reunion with Professor Vorobev (madder than ever) and a climactic effort to “revive” the Soviet Party (so to speak) that will cast bizarre shadows over the eagerly anticipated “glorious future.”
A brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary. Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing he’d dreamed this up.