Farewell from Nowhere traces the physical, spiritual, and emotional journey of a young Russian boy, Vlad Samsonov, through his turbulent adolescence and tentative venture into early manhood. Written in four sections, each comprising from seventeen to twenty-five brief chapters, the novel shifts the chronology of events frequently, so that it is necessary to read through to virtually the end of the work to understand the context or import of events that were related much earlier.
Vlad begins his role in the narrative as a boy of about seven or eight, the son of a peasant woman and a politically outspoken father whose Trotskyist leanings have led to his arrest and imprisonment. With his father absent, Vlad often goes to stay with his grandfather, Saviely Mikheyev, and spends the rest of his time reading and conversing with his neighbors in the Moscow suburb of Sokolniki. Vlad fancies himself a poet and writes tributes to the righteousness of the Soviet state. His neighbors, less enamored of Joseph Stalin’s government, are alienated and annoyed by Vlad’s blind allegiance. To Vlad, this loyalty is merely the mark of a good citizen, and he fulfills his “civic duty” even to the extent of reporting a classmate who tells an anti-Stalinist joke.
Gradually, Vlad’s experiences begin to change his attitude about political dissidence. He spends a summer at a Pioneer camp, part of a government-run youth-league program. At first, Vlad feels comfortable in the group atmosphere, but the troop leader’s dislike of him eventually makes him reluctant to participate, and he is accused of an “alien spirit of individualism.” To compound his difficulties, Vlad is smitten with love for a girl who is indifferent to him. Misreading her intentions during a war games exercise, he is caught off guard and forced to surrender. Dejected, Vlad deserts the mock battlefield and seeks solitude in which to lick his emotional wounds. He ducks inside the sewer pipe under an outdoor latrine, but even there he cannot escape his misfortune. His daydreams of victory are rudely interrupted by the arrival of the troop leader, who has come to use the latrine. Terrified of being found out, Vlad can only remain still and brace himself for the deluge. The event is both humorous and prophetic, for it turns out to be a portent of Vlad’s future encounters with the state.
The narrative shifts next to Vlad’s home life. His father, only recently released from prison, is drafted into the army and dies in his first week at the front, where Russian troops are struggling to contain Adolf Hitler’s invading army. Vlad returns to his grandfather and travels with him transporting secret documents as part of the war effort. When Saviely’s village of Uzlovaya is freed from German occupation, they return, but soon afterward Vlad is summoned home by his mother. At the train station, Vlad says good-bye to Saviely and feels, accurately, in the light of the events that follow, that his childhood is closing behind him. He returns to a gloomy Moscow and works at a variety of odd jobs, but when these fail him, he resorts to stealing. Life at home with his mother, his sister Katya, and his aunt Maria (Mikheyev) is full of conflict and becomes even more bitter when Vlad learns that his beloved grandfather has died. As he did when a young boy, Vlad seeks sanctuary in books and one day comes across Alexei Svirsky’s Istoriia moei zhizni (1935; the story of my life). The book is an account of Svirsky’s solitary travels as a youth, and it inspires Vlad, now twelve, to run away from home.
This decision marks the beginning of a radically different life for Vlad. He adopts the life-style of a transient: hopping trains, joining with other runaways in order to get money or food, and then leaving again to roam on his own. The sheer struggle for existence pushes his resourcefulness to the limits. He works for a drug smuggler, indulges in petty thievery and drinking binges, and changes his name frequently in order to get odd jobs on river expeditions or collective farms. Intermittently his luck runs out and he is sent to a reformatory or prison, though his incarcerations are generally short-lived. For a time, each release leads only to a new round of drinking and debauchery, but eventually Vlad realizes he must sober up and stop ruining his chances for a better life.
Through a series of serendipitous events, Vlad lands a job as a theater director and life becomes more stable and settled. His tranquillity is disturbed, however, when a friend introduces him to a writer who has been imprisoned and beaten because of his “subversive” work. Vlad reveals his own ambitions to write, but the guest expresses reservations about Vlad’s sincerity and desire for truth, knowing that it will be his downfall. He reads some of Vlad’s poetry, which he disparages as being too ethereal and self-consciously literary, but he recognizes the “genuine spark” of a writer and says that fate will not allow Vlad to escape his vocational responsibility. Vlad does not yet fully appreciate the writer’s wisdom, but it has left its mark. He returns to his theater job uninspired, and after antagonizing his boss he is fired.
Destitute, Vlad drifts awhile until he meets a Party official who, sympathetic to Vlad’s plight, offers him a factory job near the prosperous city of Krasnodar. Vlad continues to write but has changed his intent, realizing that the squalor and difficulties of his everyday life are what he must transform into poetry. Encouraged by his coworkers, he travels to Krasnodar to have his work appraised. The editor of the Party newspaper reluctantly rejects the poems as immature and awkward, a pronouncement that sends Vlad spinning into despair. Before leaving the city, however, he tries his luck at a small publishing house, and there his work is well received. With the prospect of publication almost certain, Vlad returns elated to his job at the brick factory. Soon afterward he is summoned by three Party officials who have come to sponsor him at the regional writer’s conference. He is given new clothes and offered the position of director of the district’s House of Culture in Krasnodar. On the train to his new job assignment, Vlad meets a disgruntled former journalist who was fired, he claims, for telling the truth about government corruption. Blinded by his own good fortune, Vlad dismisses the man as a drunken malcontent, though the ignored warning turns out to be prophetic.
Once in Krasnodar, Vlad is hailed as the “peasant poet” and wallows in his newfound success. He meets Boris Essman, an established artist who warns him about the Party’s motives and tells him a story titled “The Master Craftsman Who Knew,” a parable about artistic integrity. Essman feels that he himself has become complacent and false, and he admonishes Vlad to avoid the local literati and focus on his work. Soon things take a turn for the worse; Vlad, already plagued by scandal because of an affair with a Cossack girl, loses his job and falls out of favor with both government and literary circles. He is publicly accused of anti-Soviet activity, and when his association with Essman threatens Boris’ job, Vlad realizes he must leave for Moscow. He finally returns home to Sokolniki, knowing that his family has long since left to live in Jerusalem. Back in his birthplace, Vlad reflects on the experiences and other lives that have shaped him, and feels that he is an unwanted stepchild of Russia. He senses that he too will leave, but also that he will return so that his country will finally understand and accept him.
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