Alexander Zinoviev John Leonard

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John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although it calls itself a novel, "The Yawning Heights" defies categories, and perhaps description. Satire? Philosophical romance? Encyclopedia? Obsequy? It is Gogol with elephantiasis. It begins lumpy, achieves an astonishing texture, goes on almost forever, and ends in despair. It contains and dissects and reviles Soviet bureaucracy, rhetoric, science, psychology, philosophy, literature, art, theater, music, medicine, politics, education and journalism. There isn't a Soviet intellectual known to the West who doesn't appear in its many pages, and there are hundreds unknown to us who strut and grovel and inform and disappear. The intelligentsia of the Soviet Union, in fact, is for Alexander Zinoviev what Paris was for Proust: rotten, but significant….

We are in Ibansk … where everybody's name is Ibanov. We distinguished among the Ibanovs, as they experience the total Ism, by their professions. Thus, one Ibanov is Sociologist, another Careerist, a third Colleague, a fourth Schizophrenic, a fifth Slanderer and so on. These designations, naturally, are false-faced. Thus, Dauber is a great artist, Slanderer tells the truth, Chatterer speaks profoundly, Writer is a hack and Thinker is a cretin. The exceptions to this deception are Boss (Stalin), Hog (Khrushchev) and Truthteller (Solzhenitsyn). None of them is described. We get to know them all too well by their words and actions.

There are more words than action. What these people do is talk, incessantly, brilliantly, and to very little purpose. They know everything and achieve nothing. (p. 272)

Someone says, "We've talked about this several times before … it was a mistake that doesn't affect the essence of the matter." And someone else replies, "The essence of the matter reveals itself in characteristic mistakes." This is perfect Kafka and, like all of Kafka, quite true.

But Mr. Zinoviev—a Hobbes with a sense of humor, an Orwell acquainted with the prevarications of modern science and linguistics—has more on his mind than Gogol and Kafka and the treason of the clerks…. [If] the Soviet intelligentsia is in some way culpable for the crimes of Stalin, if there is never one "great criminal," then the intelligentsia also deserves some credit for Solzhenitsyn, who was not the only Truth-teller.

To those of us in the West, Mr. Zinoviev says: "It makes you want to scream, and scream and scream … surely they can't be as cretinous as we are! Surely they must see and understand something at least! After all, if there's been an explosion, there must have been someone who made the bomb, put it in the appropriate place, took a decision to detonate it, and detonated it. Things don't happen of their own accord, and even less so in conditions when the entire weight of a powerful state is directed to seeing that this kind of thing does not happen. Well, forget it. Let us merely accept that it was the courageous act of one man who had resolved to speak the truth about a time long gone by."

In other words, if the satirist blames everybody for having conspired, if only by silence, at a social reality that is evil, the philosopher must acknowledge that whatever good, however rare and vagrant, that comes out of such a social reality must also be credited to many, many somebodies. If Stalin was everybody's fault, Solzhenitsyn is standing on the shoulders of a lot of people, too.

I'm sorry I've paid so little attention to the parody, the wit, the science and the heroic scorn of Mr. Zinoviev, and made so much of the politics. "The Yawning Heights" is a rich, exhausting book, and much more than any rather dazed reviewer can handle. The Russians continue to amaze. (p. 273)

John Leonard, "'The Yawning Heights'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 7, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 6, 1979, pp. 272-73).