Clive James

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119

For The Radiant Future one's gratitude is unalloyed. It is nearer than The Yawning Heights to being an ordinary narrative and is thus easier for the reader to follow. There is a central character to get interested in and care about, even though he is not very likable. The central character is the narrator, head of the Department of Theoretical Problems of the Methodology of Scientific Communism…. The narrator's career as a philosopher has some resemblance to Zinoviev's own, and indeed it is possible that an element of self-hatred has been incorporated…. According to one of the cardinal principles of The Yawning Heights, it is impossible to flourish, or even grow up, in the Soviet Union while still retaining a moral sense. Therefore almost anybody you have ever heard of is automatically reprehensible.

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This principle would be intolerably strict if Zinoviev did not in the first instance apply it to himself, and more rigorously than to anyone else. The Radiant Future, I think, is clear evidence that he does so. The book has an expiatory quality that gives it a dimension missing from The Yawning Heights, in which the squalor is without pathos. The narrator of The Radiant Future is enough of a recognizably human character for us to identify with him and realize that his compromises might have been ours if we had shared his circumstances.

The circumstances are those of the Soviet Union nearly unaltered. For the most part of its enormous bulk, The Yawning Heights draws on the Russian satirical tradition that goes back at least as far as Saltykov-Shchedrin's The History of a Town, and beyond that to the whole Western tradition of utopian satire, which is essentially a means of drawing attention to a state of affairs by exaggerating it…. But another, and equally important, part of The Yawning Heights simply analyzes things as they are. This part of the book grows out of the more recent post-revolutionary satirical tradition founded by Zamyatin's We. In this satirical tradition the true state of affairs is found to be already so exaggerated that its enormity can be conveyed only by analysis….

The closely argued passages of sociological analysis in The Yawning Heights belong to this second tradition and are, in my view, by far the most original parts in the book. As an exercise in neo-Swiftian scatological imagination The Yawning Heights leaves Swift's title safe, but as an analytical treatise it has great vitality. The Radiant Future is the same sort of thing but more economically done, since there is no supererogatory burden of fantasy….

At first glance the narrator is ideally equipped to thrive in the Soviet academic system. He has no interest in his subject beyond the means it offers to gain advancement, usually by suppressing any signs of originality in others. We recognize the state of affairs characterized by Sakharov when he outlined the tragedy of creative life in the Iron Curtain countries. But the narrator makes one mistake. He listens to his colleague Anton instead of taking immediate steps to crush him. Anton, a revenant from Stalin's camps, has analyzed the Soviet system and written a book about it. Reading the manuscript, the narrator becomes infected with Anton's penetrating realism, and the onward march of his career falters as a consequence. (p. 19)

Most of Anton's ideas can be deduced from The Yawning Heights, but in The Radiant Future they are laid out in a more readily appreciable chain of consequence. Once again Zinoviev insists that the Soviet Union is not a distortion of communism but an expression of it, and that Stalinism was the ideal expression, toward which Soviet society will always tend to return…. Anton advances his thesis not as a paradox-monger but as a simple truth-teller: that the truth keeps on coming out sounding like a paradox is simply a measure of how far things have gone. (pp. 19-20)

Defenders of the Soviet Union say that it has a free health service. Critics say that you have to stand in line for it. Anton points out that neither side of the argument has anything to do with the truth. There is no free health service in the Soviet Union, since it is paid for in garnished wages, and thus by depressed living standards…. Anton keeps on coming up with these awkward discoveries one after the other. There is no stopping him. He is a sort of holy fool. (The character of Anton, incidentally, is an instance of why it is never sufficient to deduce the chain of inspiration from the history of a genre. Many satirical works feature a truth-teller and often he is the author of a secret document. But Anton's holy awkwardness is more likely to have its origins in Bulgakov's Jesus, as portrayed in the second chapter of The Master and Margarita. The way Zinoviev's narrator and Anton are bound up with each other can't help but remind you of Bulgakov's Jesus and Pilate.)

Anton's talent is to see the fundamental importance of trivia. He is continually seizing on the apparently incidental and calling it essential. According to Anton nothing is essential except the incidental. The radiant future will never arrive and there is nothing here now except the yawning heights…. Meanwhile all the abuses and atrocities, all the stupidity and chicanery, are not excrescences on the structure but the structure itself. Denunciations, for example, are not a regrettable by-product of the system but the system's bedrock. Soviet society can continue to exist only if everyone is ready to denounce anyone else. Indeed it came into existence in order for that to happen….

Armed with his devastating central perception, Anton is like a man with a hammer fighting one of those terra-cotta armies that the Chinese emperors used to guard themselves with in death. All he has to do is go on swinging. The state might destroy him physically but its official ideology can do nothing to defend itself…. Anton's idea is so simple, and yet so wide-reaching in its implications, that even he is slow to grasp it. The narrator is slower still. And perhaps Zinoviev's main reason for expressing it dialectically, through two opposing characters, was that he feared the world would never get the point if he said it straight….

Zinoviev is a formidable comic inventor but he would be even funnier if he understood the importance of economical writing, and even more influential if he understood his own originality, which is less for comic invention than for clearly argued analysis. (p. 20)

Clive James, "Laughter in the Dark," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, March 19, 1981, pp. 19-20.

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