Rescued from the literary underground, these two historical novellas provide a coarse satirical insight into post–World War II Soviet dissatisfaction.
Aleshkovsky emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979 as an infamous writer of imaginative dissident fiction. Translated into English here for the first time, Nikolai Nikolaevich (1970) and Camouflage (1977) each have a foulmouthed narrator who buttonholes the reader with bizarre stories about his adventures in Soviet society. These fascinating but dated novellas were first officially published in Russian in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1980. Prior to that they were distributed as samizdat, part of Russia’s literary underground. The careful footnotes to the narrators' allusions provide an introduction to Soviet pop culture of the 1950s and 1970s. Nikolai Nikolaevich is set in the years around Stalin’s 1953 death. The eponymous Everyman narrator gives up pickpocketing when he is offered a lucrative job masturbating for an official laboratory. Although Nikolaevich’s process is of interest to some on the scientific team, it’s his sperm that is the central concern of Kimza, the chief. Humor comes from the frequent absurd juxtaposition of serious and profane. For example, every morning the laboratory springs to life with Kimza’s bellow: “Attention! Orgasm!” The worlds of science, sex, two-bit criminality, and Communist bureaucracy intertwine and grotesquely collide. Camouflage is, if possible, an even darker novel. In the run up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, our highly unreliable alcoholic narrator, Fedya Milashkin, portrays the decrepit appearance of Soviet society as a Cold War strategy. Designed to confuse passing CIA satellites, the camouflage brigade of millions distracts the spying Americans from the war preparations hidden belowground.
Through his two scurrilous antiheroes, Aleshkovsky laughs at Russian society from the gutters of the Soviet underworld. Though they read like potty-mouthed Kafka, these stories remain of primarily academic interest.