Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central theme of Sinyavsky’s memoir-novel is the evolution of the young Sinyavsky, a decent but thoroughly conformist member of Soviet society, into a dissident artist-thinker who holds “reality” to be so tenuous, so bizarre, that it can be understood only through a phantasmagoric art which is the writer’s salvation. A second major theme is Stalinism, that peculiar form of twentieth century despotism, which shaped Sinyavsky’s life. The central metaphor expressing this theme and the one underlying the entire narrative is “night.” Sinyavsky sees his epoch as part of an ages-long, disastrous meteor shower during a pitch black August night. This bombardment proceeds from the constellation “Stalin-Kirov-Zhdanov-Hitler-Stalin,” the Zodiac sign under which Sinyavsky was born. Stalinism is, however, but one episode in the long dark night called History, a nightmare that is transcended only by art.

Sinyavsky writes for a small, sophisticated audience. The language is ornate, drawn from a diverse range of stylistic levels. The frequent cultural allusions are often arcane. The style is elliptic, jumping from one topic or set of images to another. Only upon reflection will the reader find the secret link that makes one passage, seemingly unrelated, illuminate another. Repeated reading reveals that the theme of each chapter is rendered by a mosaic of extended metaphors and parables. Only by viewing the mosaic as a whole is the exquisite thematic pattern visible. The final chapter, “In the Belly of the Whale,” offers a splendid example. The opening meditations on Assyrian relief carvings, then the reflections on the French “Cave of Mutilated Hands” from which the author emerges into a nocturnal meteor shower, obscure in themselves, set the scene for the Nightmare of History theme that concludes Sinyavsky’s chilling novel-memoir. The formidable demands on the reader are well repaid by the artistry and insight of Sinyavsky’s chef d’oeuvre.