John Bayley

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

["The Yawning Heights" is monomaniacal,] complex, brilliant and fascinating. It is a huge book, a philosophical and sociological commentary on a country called "Ibansk," and it is made up of fragments, sober essays that break off and turn into narrative fantasies and anecdotes that merge into explosive soliloquy….

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Mr. Zinoviev possesses ample scope and material as a satirist, enough to make Swift and Voltaire look like innocents and strangers to the wicked ways of the world. But Swift and Voltaire kept it short when they were being brilliant and sardonic at the expense of human hypocrisy and folly. Mr. Zinoviev writes every paragraph with a sort of passionate self-indulgence. Economy and understatement are not for him. In a sense this shows that he is not really a satirist at all but a prophet, a preacher, a voice delivering an endless tirade in the wilderness—and an investigator examining a society as tirelessly as Weber or Durkheim might have done.

Mr. Zinoviev is a humorist as well, a master of verbal clowning which, alas, does not come out alive in the translation, competent as it is. The name of his book is a complex pun. The point is that siyayushchie vysoty is a Soviet cliché, glutinously familiar in the mouth of every party hack: it means "gleaming heights"—of socialism, progress or whatever. Change the initial s into z and you get an immense yawn, of a human or an abyss. (p. 1)

There is something here of the weird hilarity in the title and text of "Dead Souls," but Mr. Zinoviev is not concerned to establish such an overpoweringly physical world as that of Gogol's masterpiece. His drab nightmare is built out of abstractions, attitudes, hypotheses….

But the yawn here is a bit contrived: hasn't the bottomless cynicism of Ibansk touched the author himself? He would probably admit it cheerfully. His own book is Ibanskian in the sense that it is obsessed with Ibansk and cannot see life except in terms of it. As a logician he is even in love with it, because it is a society that has calamitously succeeded in being what it set out to be. Marxist theory has ended in a closed circuit sealed off from history, in which mediocrity eternally perpetuates itself and cannot choose but continue to do so. Mr. Zinoviev's deadly and grotesque analysis shows the perverse way in which the system deserves to call itself democratic, for all Ibanskians are closely involved. No one is "alienated" from society, as we—so happily for us—can afford to be in the West, for the government is not an elite controlling the masses in the manner of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. By incarnating mediocrity the government both infiltrates and identifies with the people. "Normality" in Ibansk has all the solidarity of the inevitable. Ibanskians may grumble, but it is their only way of life. (p. 30)

[The] ultimate reality of Ibansk is like a Black Hole, which has the supraphysical property of turning matter into antimatter—and of destroying time, for in Ibansk there is neither past nor future. "It's futile to rely on our descendants," says a character. "Truth about the past is only possible when it does not provoke any emotion. If the past is still a matter of emotions it is impenetrable. Go on living in the present." That puts in more subtle form a truth labored by Orwell in "Nineteen Eighty-Four." By abolishing the past a society like Ibansk also abolishes the possibility of the future. Boss (Stalin) may give way to Hog (Khrushchev), but there has been no change; one mediocrity has replaced another.

Mr. Zinoviev's logic hits us with the impact of a new sort of art, though he is not exactly telling us things we didn't know. Indeed, in a sense he is elaborating, with the benefit of hindsight, a dolorous truth guessed at by Yevgeny Zamyatin when he wrote his novel "We" in the early 1920's, the novel that so greatly influenced Orwell and which, of course, has never been published in Russia. Zamyatin foresaw that the intellectual, whose only valid raison d'être is his comparative independence, would disappear in the "We" state; Mr. Zinoviev's book shows exactly how this happens.

Does he touch on a universal and not merely Ibanskian truth in the process? He certainly shows how in all modern societies there is a self-perpetuating mechanism of mediocrity and inertia. But only in Ibansk does this come from the elimination of all free intelligence. The moral of Mr. Zinoviev's work, an obvious enough one, is that the real "treason of the clerks," of Lenin and his party, was one of the sheerest naïveté. They were self-programmed to assume they would always remain the true standard of the just society they were going to create. They were wrong. The society they succeeded in creating swallows them with a vast yawn and sets up the proletarian merry-go-round of Ibanskian normality. Alexander Zinoviev has shown how it works with more power and pungency than any other Soviet writer so far. (p. 31)

John Bayley, "In the Land of Logical Absurdities," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 24, 1979, pp. 1, 30-1.

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