Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

What is Aleshkovsky satirizing? Nothing more and nothing less than both the Soviet State and the Soviet state—the state of being and mind that the State engenders. Nothing and no one escapes: slogans and slogan-mouthers (which is almost everyone), beer and beer-vendors, communal apartments and their omnivorous cockroaches. In his range of targets he resembles other satirists such as Aleksandr Zinoviev or Venedikt Erofeev or even Edward Limonov, whose seamy and often obscene grotesques subvert official optimism. The poles of Aleshkovsky’s fantastic tale, however, are truth and falsehood, art and artifice, natural (read here divine) and unnatural order. Language itself is one of the chief gauges of those extremes.

The trial is the core of the novel. A trial is, in theory, a mechanism for getting at what has really happened. Here it becomes an elaborate machine to obscure what has happened or, more precisely, to create what never happened at all: a collective fiction. Difficult as it might seem to top the clownish evil of Stalin’s show trials, Aleshkovsky does so, from the parody of establishing the exact time of the crime (“on the night of July 14, 1789, and January 9, 1905”) to the accused’s sincere disgust at himself for perpetrating (or appearing to have perpetrated) such a heinous crime. During the purge trials, some people speculated that hired actors might have stepped in for the most prominent defendants: Here Fan only realizes that there is an actor portraying him at the end of the film.

Why does Aleshkovsky (and his hero, given the possible charges, for that matter) pick this particular crime? Why rape, why an aged kangaroo? The key is not only in the sheer idiocy of the accusation but also in the genuine perversity of the crime. One of Stalin’s favorite epithets for his ideological victims was “unclean”—their crimes were “obscene,”...

(The entire section is 772 words.)