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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

What is Aleshkovsky satirizing? Nothing more and nothing less than both the Soviet State and the Soviet state—the state of being and mind that the State engenders. Nothing and no one escapes: slogans and slogan-mouthers (which is almost everyone), beer and beer-vendors, communal apartments and their omnivorous cockroaches. In his range of targets he resembles other satirists such as Aleksandr Zinoviev or Venedikt Erofeev or even Edward Limonov, whose seamy and often obscene grotesques subvert official optimism. The poles of Aleshkovsky’s fantastic tale, however, are truth and falsehood, art and artifice, natural (read here divine) and unnatural order. Language itself is one of the chief gauges of those extremes.

The trial is the core of the novel. A trial is, in theory, a mechanism for getting at what has really happened. Here it becomes an elaborate machine to obscure what has happened or, more precisely, to create what never happened at all: a collective fiction. Difficult as it might seem to top the clownish evil of Stalin’s show trials, Aleshkovsky does so, from the parody of establishing the exact time of the crime (“on the night of July 14, 1789, and January 9, 1905”) to the accused’s sincere disgust at himself for perpetrating (or appearing to have perpetrated) such a heinous crime. During the purge trials, some people speculated that hired actors might have stepped in for the most prominent defendants: Here Fan only realizes that there is an actor portraying him at the end of the film.

Why does Aleshkovsky (and his hero, given the possible charges, for that matter) pick this particular crime? Why rape, why an aged kangaroo? The key is not only in the sheer idiocy of the accusation but also in the genuine perversity of the crime. One of Stalin’s favorite epithets for his ideological victims was “unclean”—their crimes were “obscene,” “foul.” Aleshkovsky gives his readers an even stiffer dose of vile stuff—a real outrage for the righteous public to swallow.

It is not only the purge era at which Aleshkovsky aims in the novel. Like Fyodor Dostoevski’s characters, Fan is not guilty by association but is still responsible for himself and his fellow creatures. He has his own sins to atone for, “for his own [case], the real one, the biggest case of all.” The KGB and its computer are a Russian Frankenstein and his monster—the utopian nightmare of the infinite perfectibility of man. The crime is concocted by a machine, the product of reason alone: It is not that Fan is blameless, but that he is not to blame for this crime. Gemma the kangaroo, however, is blameless in a way that no human ever could be. She cannot compromise with her jailers or tacitly acknowledge the truth of those “objective conditions” which have put her behind bars. Nor can she lie to herself or others; she can only be her own kangaroo self—with no goal, no rationale, no ideology to justify her existence other than those ordained but unspoken by God and nature. Using her to make a moral point and then killing her to prop up a false accusation is the real perversion of the novel.

Fan’s rueful memories of his rebellious suit of clothes also serve this point. His suit is worn out, ready for the ragbag, but Fan will not let it die a natural death and forces his own will on the material; he takes it to a tailor. Turn a suit inside out, turn a man into a kangaroo, turn a way of life upside down—it is all social engineering.“We should never turn anything, Kolya. Let them live and die at their appointed hour, or at least from natural misfortunes—forests, jackets, states, shoes, literature, overcoats, mountains, cats, mice, neckties, and people.... I certainly don’t want to get to the Last Judgment to find me and Karpo Marx accused of trying to change the world.”

Fan’s lyrical flights and swoops when he drinks to both animal and human zoos, to “every captured, crucified butterfly, and to beetles,” when he pities even the rats he is forced to hunt (except for the chief rat, Jean-Paul Sartre) are a counterpoint to the dark, manic humor of his foul but uncorrupted language. His use of mat (the Russian family of expressions both exceedingly profane and exceedingly inventive), or prison argot, and of street slang is his last line of defense against the deadly conformity of acceptably pretty literary diction and heroic officialese. Crooked, con-man vernacular, like Fan himself, can only be true to itself; live, spontaneous language cannot support dead theory.