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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boozy Rambles to Nowhere

You are in a railway waiting room or a bar. You could even be taking a post-prandial stroll around your block of flats on a pleasant, balmy night before returning to the bosom of your beloved. And then you encounter him ... Belching and muttering nonsensically, the man who sways resolutely but unsteadily in your direction is no one in particular. He is just another drunk with a terrible story to tell. And what you are witnessing is "a commonplace scene in Russia, dear to the heart."

Reading Merry-Making in Old Russia, Evgeny Popov's collection of short stories written in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, is like listening to this kind of barroom reminiscing for too long. At first you are charmed by the congeniality of it all. Instant intimacy is struck up as a stranger unburdens the grim secrets of his heart, or grants you access to his preposterous fantasy world, where the drunkard is king and all other men are midgets. Ironic self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement at first seems funny. You laugh with the man who is a stranger to self-pity, and you get that extra bit of merriment from laughing at him too.

But in the end there is no one more boring than a drunk. They will go on. And they think that the endless philosophical drivel they spout adds up to something metaphysically meaningful; but it doesn't.

Even the author seems to weary of these repetitive tales of wasted youth, cheated ambition and spent potential, often unable to sustain them for more than three pages before killing off his creations with reckless abandon.

In some ways in fact, the fate of his characters echoes that of Popov himself. Born in 1946 in Krasnoyarsk, Popov moved to Moscow in the 1960s and began to negotiate the cracks in the cultural ice, known as the Khrushchev thaw. However, his involvement with the illegal publication of the uncensored literary almanac "Metropol" in 1981 resulted in his immediate expulsion from the Writer's Union, which he had only just succeeded in joining. A long period in literary exile followed when perhaps all that there was left for the author to do was drink.

The Soul of a Patriot, belatedly published in 1989, gave Russian readers their first real exposure to the Popov literary phenomenon. Part novel, part autobiography, part documentary account of Brezhnev's funeral, this zany, unstructured book managed to capture the spirit of the time in prose which was irreverent, fresh, and, above all, captivatingly funny.

However, since then, Popov's talent appears to have atrophied. In this collection of stories the reader can take pleasure in the pockets of brilliance, in the inverted Russian fairy-tales, the playful narrative games; the social satire. But then what? As themes are repeated without being developed, you begin to sense that the glass has been emptied and there is nothing more to drink.

The stories fall loosely into three categories. Half of them concern the misery-inducing merry-making which takes its title from the utterances of 10th-century Prince Vladimir of Kiev about the Russian passion for alcohol. Then there are the stories which satirize the Soviet way of life. The same characters wander in and out of these tales of institutionalized pilfering and work-evasion tactics, and the gap between socialist rhetoric and brutal reality. And then there are the handful of stories which do not conform: Some have their roots, one suspects, in the author's Siberian childhood. And then there is "The Singing of the Brass," an experiment in literary style.

This story is worth dwelling on, because it is the one occasion in the collection where Popov attempts something stylistically different. A a mere two-page snippet, it describes in repetitive language a young man's thoughts as he walks behind his father's coffin. It is February and a hard, dry snow starts to fall, thickening the silence of the mourners and giving haunting resonance to the music of the accompanying brass band.

"Perhaps a funeral was an opportunity? An opportunity, an opportunity, an opportunity once again to prove, to prove that we will all go there, we will all go there, and that it is a mystery, a mysterious joy for a living person to be standing for a while by a yawning, open grave, throwing in a handful of earth and yet still feeling that he's alive, he's still alive, alive, alive ... and only the singing of the brass, cloying and beautiful and sobbing, still turned your soul, turned your soul inside out, and caused universal pain."

Maybe sobering up the prose was not such a good idea after all. Let's get back to the drinkers. As in "The Soul of the Patriot," Popov playfully suggests that he is not the original writer, but is merely publishing and commenting on the stories of another writer, a certain Nikolai Nikolaevich Fetisov, whose talents will be immediately clear from the "brilliant style, the fast pace of the action in the tales and ... the exceptional topicality of the subject matter." And this Fetisov is not above dabbling in his favorite subject either, since he appears as a character in the stories to help elucidate the theme that "it's hell everywhere. And there's vodka, vodka, vodka everywhere!"

Take, for example, "Miracles in a Jacket," a story about a "young piss artist by the name of comrade Arkady Oskin." One day Oskin wakes with a hangover to discover an unexpected 10-ruble note in his jacket. It is a miracle! And instead of going to work he gets drunk with Fetisov. The same things happens day after day until the discovery of only 6 copper kopecks in his jacket pocket challenges Oskin's belief in miracles.

He returns to work, blaming his dead grandfather for his absence. And he goes on blaming all the menfolk in his family -- drunkards to the last -- when it transpires that Oskin has drunk away the trade union funds. Nonetheless the collective forgives him. For they understand that a man must do something while he waits for the "bright future" of socialist utopia to arrive.

"Merry-Making in Old Russia" by Evgeny Popov, is published by The Harvill Press, 200 pages, ?8.99 or $13.50.