The trial of Andrei Sinyavsky for anti-Soviet literature in 1966 marked an epoch in the history of dissident activism in the Soviet Union: His was the first instance of a writer’s being tried for the sentiments expressed in fictional works. His codefendant was Yuli Daniel (who wrote under the pseudonym Nikolai Arzhak). Sinyavsky’s arrest, trial, and experience in prison are at the narrative center of Goodnight!, an autobiographical novel composed in a collage style that mixes memories, fantasies, and facts. The novel contains five chapters; some chapters mix in imaginary interludes set in different typeface (in a different color of ink in the Russian original), so that rather than a continuous narrative, Goodnight! offers a spliced tale where past and present, real and dreamed experience freely intermingle.
Chapter 1 (“The Turncoat”) opens with Sinyavsky’s 1965 arrest in Moscow (its first sentence is “They grabbed me near Nikitsky Gate”), beginning in the middle of an action whose larger shape the reader presumably knows. This immediacy is counterbalanced by a strong, sustained sense of authorial distance: As he recounts the speedy unfolding of events that lead him to KGB headquarters and prison at Lubyanka Square, Sinyavsky already reflects on what the spectacle of his arrest might have looked like to an outsider. Once inside the prison, he extends this metaphor of theater, describing the “stylized, exaggeratedly decorative gloom of the casemate.” The first bit of interpolated text, “The Mirror,” proceeds as drama: This fairy-tale play grotesquely puts concrete details from Sinyavsky’s interrogation alongside the wildest fantasies of an arrested man.
The interrogators most want to get Sinyavsky to admit his connection to “Abram Tertz” (Sinyavsky was in fact arrested for writings published outside the Soviet Union under the name of Abram Tertz, and later in the novel he will recount bizarre conversations with colleagues who unknowingly ask him who this “Abram Tertz” might be). The interrogators’ insistence that Sinyavsky acknowledge his other identity also creates a basis for speculations within Goodnight! about the narrator’s lack of a unified self, at times dramatized as conversations between Sinyavsky and Tertz. Chapter 1 ends with a triumphant account of Sinyavsky’s unexpectedly warm reception among fellow prisoners on a transport train. When these men embrace and celebrate Sinyavsky, who has been told throughout his interrogation and preparation for transport that he is a pariah, his perceptions of a split within himself deepen. The duplicity that characterizes so much of “official” life animates and justifies the techniques of doubling and dissembling that mark Sinyavsky’s “private” self as it is revealed in Goodnight!
Like subsequent chapters, chapter 1 does not proceed chronologically: It includes, for example, the story of Sinyavsky’s return from prison within pages of the tale of his arrest; it recalls a party where he talked with Yuli Daniel, before their arrest; it looks ahead to Paris, where Sinyavsky has resided since 1973, and his dreams about people whom he met in prison. This collapsed sense of time also organizes the novel as a whole, since the five chapters do not proceed sequentially either.
Chapter 2, “The Public House,” occurs principally in the hut where prisoners are allowed to meet with family members who have traveled to the labor camp to visit them. Sinyavsky’s visit with his wife Mariya forms the basis for this part of the narrative; told in powerfully evocative terms, the visit conveys the loving loyalty of husband and wife. Sinyavsky also weaves in tales of less festive visits he has heard about from others in the camps. He permits digressions on such subjects as the hardiness of Russian women, and the role of human faces in moments of falling in love. This chapter is among the novel’s most lyrical and sensual; indeed, its praise for sexual connection marks a rare departure from the reticence about matters of the flesh usual in Russian literature. The grim prison-camp setting does not recede into oblivion, however: A prisoner shot in the camps for trying to escape is mournfully recalled, and other “camp stories” with which Sinyavsky feels himself full “to bursting” are recorded. The recollections of the first time that gossip about “Abram Tertz” came to Sinyavsky’s institute brings readers up to date about the narrator’s own story; watching him piece together the evidence that the authorities were closing in on him reveals his discernment and unshakable calm.
In chapter 3, “My Father,” Sinyavsky returns to memories of his childhood. Among the most memorable is the tale of Efim Bobko, a Ukrainian boy whom Sinyavsky’s father saves from probable starvation in 1933 by virtually adopting him. Efim’s picturesque tales about his family turn out to be false: He later confesses to Sinyavsky’s family that he was the son of kulak (a prosperous farmer, the entire class of which was destroyed during collectivization). This brief tale allows Goodnight to include a vivid evocation of the first stage of Joseph Stalin’s terror, the starvation and murders that accompanied his creation of a state agricultural system in the early 1930’s. Because of their temporal sweep, the stories about Sinyavsky’s father in chapter 3 recall the full horror of Stalin’s rule. Sinyavsky’s father was a Socialist Revolutionary (a party which the Bolshevik Communists persecuted after the 1917 Revolution), and he had a gentry background, two facts that were bound to lead to trouble. It is thus no surprise when Sinyavsky recounts his father’s arrest. The tale of arrest and imprisonment, which proceeds reticently at first, yields to a painfully detailed account of the nighttime police...
(The entire section is 2397 words.)