Before he left the Soviet Union in 1978, Yuz Aleshkovsky was known officially as a children’s writer and unofficially as the author of scurrilously funny (therefore subversive) songs. At least one of those songs has become part of national folklore, witness to Aleshkovsky’s ear for the spoken language: Of all the ears inside and outside the Soviet Union, his is probably the one closest to the ground.
His novels and stories belong to the narrative tradition called skaz, which is an untranslatable term for the type of yarn told in the first person by an unself-conscious narrator whose language draws at least as much attention to the teller as to the tale. That language may be dialect, it may be slang, or it may be purely idiosyncratic. Its effect may be satiric, but its objects is itself, and it can carry the reader far beyond what passes for a plot. His satire mocks not only a social system but also the human folly that produced it.
Like Dostoevski’s Underground Man, Aleshkovsky’s protagonists carry on a monologue which is really a dialogue with themselves or some other, invisible audience. Those protagonists may already be schizophrenic, as in the psychiatric ward of Sinen’kii skromnyi platochek (1982; modest blue kerchief) or the interrogation rooms of Ruka (1980; the hand), or may become that way by living a massive lie, as in Kamufliazh (1980; camouflage). They may be singled out for extraordinary adventures because of some prodigious physical trait: Nikolai Nikolaevich, the hero of a novella by the same name (1980) is chosen as chief donor for a sperm bank; Sergei Ivanovich, the hero of Bloshinoe tango (1986; a tango for fleas), wields a phenomenal sense of smell.
Whatever their other and numerous sins may be, they all share both physical and spiritual intuition. This raunchy crop of thieves and derelicts has a clear sense of good and evil, although, in proper Dostoevskian fashion, that sense does not always rule their actions. They are all men in extremis, at the end of their rope—or someone else’s. This moral finality takes Aleshkovsky’s work beyond social satire to philosophy, and then faith. Seen by some as a purveyor of bad jokes and worse taste, he is one of the most serious moralists of twentieth century Russian literature; he bellies up to the bar with Job, and what the rest of the customers hear is, as Joseph Brodsky puts it, the sound of “Jeremiah—laughing.”