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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Witty, Incisive Satire of the Times

When "The Soul of a Patriot" was written in 1982, Evgeny Popov was being blacklisted by the Soviet writers' union, his work deemed too irreverent for publication. Russian readers had to wait seven years for the book. After five more years, the English translation is at last available, in a beautifully produced Collins Harvill original paperback edition. English readers should wait no longer. "The Soul of a Patriot" is a witty and penetrating satire of life in the twilight of the Brezhnev era. Part novel, part autobiography, part documentary description of Brezhnev's funeral, Popov defines the spirit of the times for his reader better than any volume of history can hope to, all in a scant 170 pages.

The book's structure, such as it can be said to have a structure, takes the form of a series of long, rambling letters, penned in the closing months of 1982, to a character called Ferfichkin. Experts in Russian literature will nod knowingly, anticipating parallels with Dostoevsky's Ferfichkin in "Notes From Underground." But Popov is simply relishing making his reader the butt of a joke.

For, in spite of the narrator's insistence that Ferfichkin is the only character of any importance in the book, he remains faceless and insignificant.

"Unfortunately, the author hasn't considered it necessary to divulge the identity of the addressee, which at times creates the impression that he doesn't know it himself," writes Popov in the preface, constructing the pretence that he, like the narrator in Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time," is simply publishing the correspondence of others that fell into his hands.

"The Soul of a Patriot" is full of such teasing games. Popov loves to flout literary convention with narrative unorthodoxy. He could, as he sets out to do in the first letter, simply describe to Ferfichkin all the "friendly Caucasian people" who make up the happy, Soviet family that he encounters on the Tuapse-Moscow express train. But other thoughts will keep popping into his head --

such as the extravagant exploits of his Uncle Kolya. Popov glows with comic national pride as he recalls how Uncle Kolya taught the arrogant head waiter in the best restaurant in Vienna a thing or two about Russian cooking with his recipe for home-baked milk ("Take some milk, pour it into a dish, pot or any other earthenware container, and place it in the plate warmer of a traditional Russian stove").

But when it comes to describing the dehumanizing folly of Soviet town-planning, the satire acquires a meaner, more mordant tone: "Look at that slogan hanging up next to it, you can understand that, but you can't understand how to tell the time by that 'clock,' which has been fixed there for decoration on that high blank wall in Sytinsky Lane, that was put there in exchange for the houses that were blown up, you just can't understand it, don't even try."

Popov pauses to remember his Granny Marina Stepanovna, who never loved him much, but cared even less for Stalin. She outlived her archenemy by only six months, but enjoyed every one of those days without that "bloody old devil." Such brave defiance sets Popov thinking, in irony-laden terms, about passive inner resistance to tyranny, about freedom of spirit.

Provocative independence of thought is clearly bred in the Popov genes, for it is precisely this quality that makes "The Soul of a Patriot" so seductive. Like a refrain, the narrator keeps referring to the fact that today, "due to circumstances which are nobody's fault," his writing is unpublishable, his plays unperformable, and he is forced to scrape together a living, and subsist often on the charity of friends. And yet he will continue to write what he likes in whatever way he chooses.

At times the style of "The Soul of a Patriot" parodies the turgid pedantry of the approved Soviet technique of literary realism. The prose is convoluted and made clumsy with detail. At others Popov exudes a "free and easy garrulity" as thoughts, colloquially expressed, tumble onto the page artlessly. Simple puns and gags take on a life of their own.

And at others still it seems that Popov cannot find words at all to express his cynicism and black humor. At these moments more is communicated by what is left unsaid, by the way sentences trail off into dots ...

Reading "The Soul of a Patriot" is like accompanying Evgeny Popov on one of his heroic drinking bouts; you make a friend. You will be entertained with tall tales of family members long dead. More lucid moments will recreate the excitement of free intellectual debate, snatched for safety's sake in parked cars and open spaces, about the nature of art and ideology. And you will be exposed to an extravagant cast of Popov's friends and enemies, denoted in the main part by Kafkaesque initials alone.

Popov will make you believe that it is possible to survive the most suffocating of political systems, if only you breathe in deeply. And laugh.

"The Soul of a Patriot, or Various Epistles to Ferfichkin," by Evgeny Popov, Collins Harvill, Paperback Original, 194 pages, ?8.99.