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Voinovich, Vladimir 1932–
A Russian novelist, short story writer, and poet, Voinovich is a brilliant satirist. All of his fictional works deride social and political conventions in Soviet Russia and reflect his concern for the difficulty of maintaining an identity in a totalitarian society.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2756
Voinovich's fiction as a whole reflects two main literary concerns. As a social critic and satirist, he wanted to create a world of caricatures and to develop his skill at building dialogue out of cliches and banalities. He also tried to create a new kind of hero, who would not only have the satirical function of contrasting with his predecessor, the Positive Hero, but whose behavior would also reflect a different morality. The responsibilities of the individual and the struggle of the free personality against manipulation by society emerge as major themes in Voinovich's most important works, and in these the characters are given clear moral tests.
These two sides of Voinovich, the satirical and the didactic, were difficult to synthesize artistically. To some extent he had tried out both approaches in We Live Here, but later he wrote two different types of stories. Those in which social satire is dominant take place in the provinces and use many stylistic devices favored by nineteenth-century Russian satirists. The two major stories with didactic tendencies have individualized heroes and urban settings and are told by first-person narrators in a more sophisticated, ironic tone, perhaps somewhat influenced by modern short stories from the West.
In Voinovich's best work, the novel Chonkin, he again mixes both aims. In Chonkin Voinovich places a thoroughly recast "positive" hero against a background of broad social satire. The peculiar nature of this hero, a product of Russian folklore as well as literary tradition, makes this mixture successful. Chonkin combines social satire and ethical judgments with fantasy and humor and is told in an easy narrative style which should appeal to a wide audience. (p. 101)
The novella We Live Here, his first published fiction, was written in 1960–61 and set in 1960. This work is interesting in light of Voinovich's later fiction, as it shows basic themes and approaches. In We Live Here Voinovich deromanticizes country life, makes fun of Soviet cultural myths, and offers the reader a young hero who questions the behavior of his society.
We Live Here describes the life of young people who are working on construction and agricultural projects in the country. Voinovich tries to examine their private emotions and hopes for the future, but the psychological analysis can only be appreciated when this work is contrasted to the literature which had dominated the preceding period.
We Live Here consists of a series of short scenes, most of which are chosen to illustrate an obvious shortcoming of some of its characters…. (pp. 101-02)
This first work has very definite heroes and villains, chosen and developed according to slightly more liberal principles than the heroes and villains from the immediate Socialist Realist past….
In We Live Here Voinovich tried to free his hero from heroics and make him interesting as an individual. Goshka is similar to the hero-narrators of Voinovich's later stories in his honesty and concern with analyzing and judging his own behavior. Unlike Socialist Realist heroes, Goshka does not live according to a plan…. (p. 102)
Among the younger characters in the work, the main target of Voinovich's light satire is the idealistic and romantic Vadim. Vadim writes poems glorifying work on the kolkhoz, but the villagers soon learn that his work is all theory and no practice. The difference between life in the city and life in the country is an important theme in this work, and Voinovich's satire supports the view of those who work in the provinces. He shows there is nothing romantic about work on the farms and satirizes the accounts of country life written for those who live in the city. (pp. 102-03)
Although We Live Here satirizes cultural myths and contemporary morals, the work was not especially daring for its time in its social criticism. The book ends optimistically, even romantically; and as Goshka stands and proudly glances at the passing tractors, the worst seems to be over. As a literary work, We Live Here is structured rather clumsily and the characters are oversimplified. Yet the work shows Voinovich's concern with the problem of creating a good, believable, and interesting hero while at the same time amusing the reader with social satire. In several places in the work there is good dialogue and we see some of the humor which Voinovich later uses so well….
[In the story] "I Want to Be Honest," Voinovich uses a first-person narrator, a switch from We Live Here which allowed the hero to be presented more intimately and irony and sarcasm to be used more subtly. (p. 103)
The plot of "I Want to Be Honest" is structured around two moral decisions which the hero [Samokhin] must make…. Although the plot is a bit melodramatic, Voinovich's use of dialogue saves the story. Samokhin's winning ironic voice permits moral conclusions to be stated in an entertaining way.
The characterization in this story is again black and white. Most of the men connected with the work project are negative types, lazy, ready to compromise, afraid to disobey orders…. In addition to general dishonesty, Voinovich also satirizes the political meeting, drinking, Soviet incompetence (no one has the right materials at the right time), and Soviet journalism. (pp. 103-04)
The humor in this story is more sophisticated than that in We Live Here but the plot and characterization are too predictable. Voinovich was still trying to combine humor and social satire with the desire to create an individualized hero who could win some kind of moral victory over his society. The tone of this story is much less optimistic, though there is no direct criticism of the Soviet system as a whole. Voinovich's criticisms of Soviet life and its effects on the individual was in keeping with the general liberal spirit of many writers who were published in the early 60's.
In his story, "A Distance of Half a Kilometer,"… Voinovich made greater use of folk humor and dialect. This story, told by an outside narrator, takes place in the country, but unlike We Live Here concentrates on types and has a somewhat burlesque comic tone. Voinovich was not so concerned with character development or individual moral problems here. In treating the realities of Soviet provincial life, he uses many devices found in nineteenth-century satires. (pp. 104-05)
The value of life in the face of death is questioned [in "A Distance of Half a Kilometer"], but this philosophical speculation is overshadowed by the humor in the tale. Voinovich experimented here with many devices he would later use successfully, such as awkward speech, the long rambling monologue, and dialogue built out of apparent nonsense, in the tradition of Gogol and Zoshchenko.
Village life is shown to be much more stupid and hopeless here than in Voinovich's first work. The most positive figure is a simple carpenter (reminiscent of some of Leskov's characters) who loves and gives names to the objects he crafts. Nikolai serves as a contrast to Ochkin [an army deserter and thief], who had preferred life in [labor] camps to work (at least it was free, and there were baths, concerts, and movies). Nikolai and his friend have a favorite argument: does the Bolshoi theater have six or eight columns? This forms their intellectual life; and when a visitor from Moscow gives Nikolai the answer, he decides not to inform his friend, for fear that they will have nothing to talk about. (p. 105)
[In "In the Compartment"] the male narrator relates a conversation he had with a compartment-mate on a train ride from Moscow to Leningrad. This passenger, a prim and paranoic lady of thirty is (a bit too) afraid that the narrator will try to seduce her; therefore she sits up all night on guard. The woman, having lost all sense of reality, is unable to see that the narrator is not at all interested in her. Perhaps this sketch reflects Voinovich's growing interest in psychological loss of freedom; the woman has become a slave to a preconceived view of the world. Yet "In the Compartment" is above all a funny sketch whose humor again comes from Voinovich's well-constructed dialogue.
The best of Voinovich's stories to be published in the Soviet Union is "Two Comrades."… This story takes place in a city and concerns two adolescents who grow up there. The story is narrated, in retrospect, by Valery Vazhenin, who tells us of several incidents, and of one in particular which helped him to come of age. "Two Comrades" also examines concepts particularly important in this period of Soviet history—freedom and responsibility, friendship and loyalty. Although no direct attack on the Soviet system is made, there is a lot of Aesopian language and the basic moral argument of the story certainly bears on the current political scene. Nonetheless these criticisms were not strong enough to keep the story from being published; and Voinovich's primary interest was in the effects of the system on the individual psyche rather than on the nation.
In "Two Comrades" Voinovich develops the irony he had used in "I Want to Be Honest," but here the hero is an adolescent, and the dialogue is rich with adolescent city slang. Valery is Voinovich's most sensitive and intelligent hero, as well as his most successfully individualized one. He also has a dry sense of humor, does not take himself too seriously, and is unwilling to compromise with what he finds to be his own self.
The investigation of what defines friendship is very important in "Two Comrades." (pp. 105-06)
For different reasons and in different ways all of Voinovich's "positive" heroes are tested in ["Two Comrades"]. In light of the mass arrests and denunciations which occurred in the Soviet Union, the matter of loyalty was an important one.
"Two Comrades" also has more direct literary references than Voinovich's other works, and he enjoys satirizing the literary profession. (p. 108)
The last two works Voinovich had published in the USSR, the short story "Sovereign" … and the historical novel Degree of Trust … are not as good as "Two Comrades." It may be that with Degree of Trust Voinovich was still trying to work out a compromise whereby some of his unprinted works could be published as well. This historical novel tells the story of the revolutionary Vera Figner, but one feels that the author was more interested in her young, introspective, and likeable husband, whom she abandons one-third of the way through the work.
"Sovereign" bears some relation to Chonkin in its attempt to combine some structural and stylistic aspects of folklore with contemporary social problems and language. This story again shows Voinovich's tendency to mix moral messages with humorous dialogue and dialect, but in this case the mixture is not very successful…. The story ends with the death of both [the tale's] lovers, but the tragic elements are not effective because the characters are not strongly developed.
The two works of fiction by Voinovich that were published abroad, the story "By Means of a Reciprocal Correspondence" … and the novel Chonkin, show an increasing concern with broad social satire and problems of social psychology and morality. Although the moral position of the hero still remains clear, Voinovich seems to have resolved the artistic conflict between individualized characters and satirical types, and his humorous and satirical side prevails over the overtly didactic. Yet Voinovich's continuing interest in the political and social importance of individual behavior is shown in these works. What kind of values and inner resources decide how men stand up to injustice? What is human about human behavior, what is normal, what is moral? (pp. 108-09)
Although "A Reciprocal Correspondence" is a study of relations between two individuals, it is hard not to relate its implications concerning loss of freedom and the psychology of tyranny to the culture at large. (pp. 109-10)
"A Reciprocal Correspondence" is the first work by Voinovich in which none of the major characters is more positive than negative. The foolish Ivan is a different Voinovich "hero" and is presented in a slightly grotesque manner. By the end of the story Ivan is a complete caricature; he becomes a puppet-like figure who is being beaten by his wife as the curtain drops. (p. 110)
In "A Reciprocal Correspondence" the world has become … cruel and depressing. The role of the hero has also changed. The reader is tempted to feel sorry for him, but why? The story deals with the psychology of tyranny and the loss of a freedom which Ivan did nothing to deserve. As the fictional world of Voinovich became more depressing and bitter, such a caricature was fit. In the novel Chonkin, however, Voinovich's aims were more complex. There we find a "foolish" hero cast in a positive role.
The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Chonkin is also a study in delusion, but delusion on a mass scale. Chonkin further questions what man is, what men live by, who is sane and who is foolish. In this work Voinovich found the perfect form to combine his satirical and didactic aims…. Voinovich uses Ivan Chonkin's adventures as a means of revealing the absurdities of the Soviet system, but Chonkin is also a positive figure and is cast in a real hero's role. (p. 112)
By incorporating folk-tale elements into a satirical adventure novel, Voinovich created a framework which enabled him to combine heavy satire with a hero whose character was positive, familiar, and thus believable. From a totally incompetent soldier, who at first seems to be only a travesty of the traditional positive Soviet hero, Chonkin develops into a likeable human being. This change is opposite to that in "A Reciprocal Correspondence," where the hero turns into a complete caricature. Thus, in Chonkin, as in many folk tales, it is the "fool" who is wise and strong enough to slay the villain: following his own eyes, he distinguishes between truth and falsehood in a world of upsidedown values. (pp. 112-13)
Among the different elements of Voinovich's style in Chonkin are contemporary slang, the jargon of the Soviet press and bureaucracy, nineteenth-century literary mannerisms and formulas and proverbs associated with folk tales. Such a mixture is very difficult to translate without loss of humor. (p. 113)
Chonkin uses and combines anecdotes based on contemporary events and political jokes, dream sequences with fairytale elements, and a great deal of everyday life … often told in a coarse manner. The coarseness forms an important stylistic element and supports the speculations on what is human. In Part I, for example, a long dream scene mixes Soviet political satire, folklore, the grotesque, and the love story of Ivan and Nyura. (p. 114)
The themes of respect for all life and loyalty to friends are found again in Chonkin….
Voino vich's satire in Chonkin, especially in Part II, is both more broad and bitter. All important figures—the kolkhoz chairman, the head of the local KGB, the military commander, a leading woman activist—are complete scoundrels…. Chonkin is filled with examples of human stupidity, and Voinovich takes good advantage of the ridiculous situations made possible in such a system. (p. 116)
["An Incident in the 'Metropole'" and Ivankiada] are both satirical autobiographical accounts which relate, in an amusing manner, Voinovich's not so amusing confrontations with the authorities—the KGB in the former and the literary establishment in the latter. In both works the author is forced by events beyond his control to act as his own positive hero. These satirical pieces suggest that Soviet reality is often more fantastic than fiction (at least its own); for the world Voinovich presents seems to thrive on distorting its own rules. It is fitting, then, that "An Incident in the 'Metropole'" is subtitled "A True Story Resembling a Thriller," and that Ivankiada (subtitled "The Story of the Writer Voinovich's Installment in a New Apartment") is put into a mock-heroic framework. (pp. 116-17)
Ivankiada satirizes the methods by which the bureaucracy rules and reveals the discrepancies between official values and laws and real values and practices…. What is most effective about this satire is Voinovich's use of real names and authentic data (letters, memoranda, etc.). Again he condemns disloyalty to friends and man's readiness to rationalize this disloyalty. Friends who privately praised Chonkin seemed all too ready to censure it in public.
Voinovich uses dialogue very skillfully in Ivankiada; he is particularly good at capturing the ritualized formulas which are intended to discourage attempts to do business through official channels, and, indeed, discourage communication in general between Soviet citizens. (p. 118)
Mary Ann Szporluk, "Vladimir Voinovich: The Development of a New Satirical Voice," in Russian Literature Triquarterly (copyright © 1977 by Ardis), Winter, 1976, pp. 99-121.
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As a "hero" [the title character of "The Good Soldier Chomkin"] springs from much earlier models: Chekhov's little men, Tolstoy's simple peasants, Leskov's eccentric and slightly ridiculous "saints" and, above all perhaps, Ivan-durak, the stupid peasant of Russian folk-tales, who leads a charmed life in close communion with animals and nature, and whose cheerful simplicity brings him miraculous victories over the rich, sophisticated and powerful of this world. Literary and pre-literary echoes surround Chonkin. His very origins are mysterious: rumour has it that he may be the illegitimate son of the last Prince Golitsyn. On the other hand, his father may have been a shepherd. Who knows? But he clearly springs from a twilight world of the pre-revolutionary popular and literary imagination. The irruption of this unlikely yet ordinary figure into Soviet society provides the opportunity for a satire which reveals not only the absurdities of the system but also its deeper human mechanisms….
Voinovich's first literary efforts were poems and lyrics for popular songs, one of which gained national fame because it was adopted as a kind of "cosmonauts' anthem" after Yuri Gagarin's flight in 1961. That is in a way appropriate, because his early career was a product of the Khrushchev period of cultural and scientific optimism. His first prose works, published in Novy Mir, were consonant with the general search at that time for personal integrity and more humane forms of community life. Writers were left relatively free to pursue this search in their own way, and Voinovich himself has testified that "the degree of freedom for literature in the Khrushchev period was sufficient for me personally". At that time his work could have been considered as part of a revaluation of Socialist Realism, and he himself certainly thought it consistent with the doctrine. His concern was with personal integrity and how it is, not ideally but actually, built up in the individual in the exacting and often corrupting circumstances of modern industrial and agricultural work.
His approach to the problem was, however, very different from that of the classical Socialist Realists. The heroes of his stories were vacillating young men not quite certain of themselves or their beliefs. This can be seen in all his works up to the Two Comrades of 1967. Voinovich was asking: what are the conditions in which principled action is really possible in everyday life? How is the good man formed and how does he live? In short, from the very start, he was reexamining the whole concept of the positive hero….
[We Live Here, I Want to Be Honest, and Two Comrades, the] three early major works of Voinovich, all show the same preoccupation with the way in which human beings find themselves, the way in which they evolve a moral sense. But, significantly, what his characters find themselves seeking is not ideals but rather their own personal authentic existence. It is not correct ideals but only this individual discovery which can enable a human being to act morally in a consistent manner, Voinovich seems to be saying. Or, in grander philosophical terms: ontology precedes morality. The term "instinctive existentialism" has been used by Geoffrey Clive for Solzhenitsyn and for some of the nineteenth-century Russian novelists, and I think it applies just as well to Voinovich—who, moreover, has a lighter touch than most in his development of it.
It is this existential dimension which gives the satire in Ivan Chonkin its profundity. The fundamental absurdity which the novel brings to light is the inauthentic existence forced on everyone by an overbearing system of authority, the way in which the elaborate structures of this system come in extreme cases to replace the human personality itself. Chonkin is the ideal central character for this satire because, though he is subject to the external coercion as much as anyone else, he does not internalize it: indeed he does not even understand it, and in that way remains spiritually free from it. But when he stands up at a political education session and (goaded on by an unscrupulous colleague) asks if Comrade Stalin has had two wives, his naivety releases a pent-up complex of unmentionable subjects which reduces the political commissar to helpless and cross-pressured silence. He is the innocent fool who gets everyone at cross-purposes and in the process reveals their hidden motives. He is as good a catalyst for showing up the varieties of inauthentic existence as Chichikov in Gogol's Dead Souls.
In contrast to Chonkin the other characters stand out in clear relief….
Gladyshev is the only person in the village who not only accepts the existing authority structure, but also accords it genuine devotion, out of belief in its progressive and scientific nature. The capacity people have for building their whole lives out of illusion is essential to this authority structure, as indeed to any totalitarian system, and it is a capacity which fascinates Voinovich and which he has investigated in other works….
Obsession with a single idea and the capacity for boundless self-delusion characterize [many of his] characters. The story of Gladyshev shows how such people can become minor cogs in a huge machine of power.
Is there any "authentic existence" to set against all this? The answer is yes, in a way. Chonkin is, as I have said, not merely a satirical catalyst, but also a positive hero of a kind. But he does not function in any way like the classical Socialist Realist hero. No reader would actually wish to take Chonkin as a model for social behavior. It is rather that Chonkin awakens the reader's humanity, and points to the essentials of human existence camouflaged by the gross and inflated inessentials of the system.
There is a further dimension to "authentic existence" here too. Like Gogol, Voinovich deliberately allows his usually realistic world to be penetrated now and then by the fantastic. One of Gladyshev's confident "scientific" assertions is that in the course of evolution the monkey became human by working. Chonkin is puzzled by this statement and contends that, if that is the case, then the horse would appear to have a better claim to human status. After this altercation, Gladyshev dreams (or thinks he dreams) that the farm pony has turned into a man and wants to go and make a career in the town. As the novel evolves, it becomes clear that this may not have been a dream at all, and this pony plays an important and semi-fantastic role in the development of the plot. The alternative to the generally accepted theory of evolution (the kingpin of positivist thinking) is thus, as it were, left open, and we are led back to fairytale and folk culture, as well as to non-scientific modes of perceiving the world, which, if they are fantastic, are at least harmless fantasies compared with those of the Gladyshevs and super-Gladyshevs of this world. (p. 93)
Geoffrey Hosking, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 23, 1976.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288
"The Ivankiad" is a fitting sequel to Voinovich's "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Pvt. Ivan Chonkin."… It is another example of satire at its best…. By coincidence, "The Ivankiad" appears at a moment when the roman à clef is flooding the US market. It is not exactly a roman à clef, but it is "the inside story" of an authentic Soviet apparatchik.
The term "Ivankiad" is rooted in Ivan'ko, at once a person with connections as well as a personification of connections. According to Voinovich, "He is legion." It is Ivan'ko who intrigues his way into the delicate layers of decision-making in order to obtain more living space: one half of a two-room apartment which has been lawfully promised to the narrator, Voinovich himself.
The theme of a ludicrous struggle for a Moscow apartment is not new, but in the hands of Voinovich it acquires a new dimension: documentation. Any resemblance to actual persons and places in the Soviet literary world is hardly coincidental, for the entire imbroglio actually took place in 1973, a year before Voinovich was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers….
In spite of the spread of Soviet satire, this literary mode is still rather risky; it is still possible to concoct an explosive mixture of candor, humor and wit. When Voinovich asks whether a saucepan can become a member of the Writers' Union, there is really no explosion—just a lot of noise in the kitchen. This time a US publisher has not acquired a manuscript written "for the drawer," but an extremely funny drama about authors who come face to face with the territorial imperative. (pp. 114-15)
Walter F. Kolonosky, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.
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"I'd Be Honest If They'd Let Me" [is a story about an] ordinary Soviet citizen who is thwarted by the System and holds out against it in the name of his integrity as a man and a worker….
This story … appeared in Novy Mir, just at the time Khrushchev was cracking down on the liberal writers, many of whom, like Voinovich, were trying to renovate socialist realism by replacing the standard "positive" hero with a human one whose true circumstances do not generally appear in Pravda. In the "cultural conferences" that were staged to call the liberals to account, "I'd Be Honest If They'd Let Me" was singled out by Ilychev, Khrushchev's chief ideologist and hatchetman, as being particularly odious and dangerous.
Voinovich's defense of the story claimed that though its hero finds himself fighting alone against "irregularities," its point was that "every human being has an aim in life in his own sphere, which means that he has something to devote himself to and to which he can sacrifice himself sincerely." This was not an evasive, noble sentiment but a bedrock conviction that had guided this kolkhoznick and carpenter to his vocation as a writer and was to sustain him in the difficult years that followed….
From 1963 on, he had been writing his lifework, a long satirical novel about the encounters of a backward Army private with the Soviet system. In it he continued to draw upon his own experience and to explore his central abiding conviction that a man is what he does and hence should try to live in accord with his better nature and with the purpose he chooses to sacrifice himself for: in short, he should not become a hack. In "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin," he went much further in laying his truth directly across the public lie of the worker's state and the people's republic, to show how integrity and authenticity fare in the actual meshes of the Soviet system: not only the kolkhoz but the secret police, the Party and that Holy of Holies, the Red Army.
As a concession to the authorities he set the novel in the dark distant past of Stalinism, and as a strategy he chose a comic peasant hero and a tone of warm, ingenuous mockery and fantasy. The choice of a satirical mode was inspired, for it unearthed a first-rate comic talent that had been lurking beneath the sober gritty surface of his early realism and a new and powerful gift for rendering the transactions between reality and fantasy, the ordinary life haunted by the phantoms and phantasmagoria of the police state. (p. 6)
Voinovich is not widely known here, but he soon will be. For this is a stunning book as well as a brave one: a tender, hilarious piece of rural naturalism leavened by a pure imagination, and a stinging, far-reaching burlesque of institutionalized fear, stupidity, treachery, delusion and absurdity. Call it a masterpiece of a new form—socialist surrealism. Call it the Soviet "Catch 22," as written by a latter-day Gogol. (pp. 6-7)
One must bear in mind that the Red Army occupies about the same position in recent Soviet culture that Stalin did in his heyday. Every year another endless line of novels is cranked out about the heroes of "The Great Patriotic War." Voinovich slyly has his reader ask him why he didn't take his military hero from "real life, a tall, well-built, disciplined, crack student of military and political theory." He replies that he was too late, "all the crack students had already been grabbed up and I was left with Chonkin." (pp. 7, 24)
Theodore Solotaroff, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 23, 1977.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354
Critics and blurb-writers have called [The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin] a "Soviet Good Soldier Schweik" and a "Soviet Catch-22." They are right, but they leave out a dimension. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is also a Soviet Gulliver's Travels. Vladimir Voinovich at 43 is not only the Soviet Hašek, the Soviet Heller, a 20th-century Gogol or Saltykov-Shchedrin. He is also the 20th-century Soviet Jonathan Swift, God help him.
I say "God help him" because his bitterness has not yet overwhelmed his humor and his tenderness, as Swift's did. But he lives in Moscow, where his telephone has been disconnected, where the bureaucrats who live by excreting the fear and stupidity and treachery that he burlesques will no doubt try to drown him in their excrement. Voinovich would appreciate the metaphor, I like to think; his book has many like it, part of the Swiftian flavor. Perhaps his surrealism will save him from the corrosion of bitterness. But it is not his surrealism. It is his characters', the surrealism of taking the absurd seriously and the serious with absurdity, of being totally unable to distinguish between them….
[The] confrontation with a Jew named Stalin may be the funniest portrayal of Soviet officialdom ever written. ("Just why are you trying to pass yourself off as Comrade Stalin's papa?" "Because I am the father of Comrade Stalin. My son, Comrade Zinovy Stalin, is the most-well-known dental technician in Gomel.") The very idea of a Jew named Stalin is one of the funniest and most frightening ideas a Russian is likely to come across. That may be one of the problems an American reader faces with this novel. Its humor is universal, but the particulars may be hard to understand if one has neither lived in the Soviet Union nor studied its life. On the other hand, if you laugh at this book, you may be on the way to a more profound understanding of Soviet life than even reading Solzhenitsyn makes possible.
Anthony Astrachan, "Good Soldier Chonkin," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 6, 1977, p. F10.
Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400
The plot [of Ivankiada] offers a satirist more than a few opportunities to utilize his craft. To the service of his satire Voinovich brings a style which is a delight to read: ponderous Soviet acronyms and journalese rub shoulders with outlandish Americanisms and occasional archaic Slavonicisms; passages of devastating humour alternate with serious and even moralizing commentary. The tale is fast-paced, the transitions smooth. Voinovich dextrously mixes genres: "straight" narrative is interspersed with (or derailed by) selections from the author's diary, various letters of protest or declarations sent (or not sent) to Soviet officials, the tape-recording of a phone conversation, and extended fantasies about what Ivanko's thoughts would be in a given situation.
Voinovich also frequently engages in what the Russian Formalists have called "laying bare the device"—a deliberate toying with literary conventions. The narrator will break off his account to announce what he has just done or intends to do with the plot—the reader, of course, is well-advised to take such asides with a grain of salt…. Stylistically Ivankiada impresses me as superior to and exhibiting better control than the longer and more ambitious Chonkin, which has a tendency to sag and sputter in the middle sections, though its beginning and end are nonpareil. Voinovich appears still to be maturing as a writer; if his talent is not arrested, we can expect even better things from him in coming years.
While Ivankiada is obviously not written according to the canons of Socialist Realism, Voinovich has the norms and expectations of this doctrine very much in mind. (p. 1186)
Unlike a number of talented contemporary Russian writers—for example, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Vladimir Maksimov—Voinovich is not a religious man, but there is what he calls a "moral factor" in his tale, and he shares the moral concerns of such authors. What matters, he shows, is not whether or not one wins a given battle, but how one lives….
Vladimir Voinovich must surely be one of the best satirists of our time. His talent compares favourably with that of the late Mikhail Bulgakov, whose name is frequently mentioned in the pages of Ivankiada and whose Master and Margarita may have been given him some ideas on how to depict Soviet writers. (p. 1187)
John B. Dunlop, "The Invasion of the Ivankos," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 14, 1977, pp. 1186-87.
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