Truth is for Strangers.
by Efraim Sevela.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Doubleday. 209 pp. $6.95.

A Hero in his Time.
by Arthur A. Cohen.
Random House. 278 pp. $8.95.

The Russian author who does not want to write to the state’s direction has assumed the nightmarish status of an underground writer, that is to say, from the state’s point of view he has chosen a life of crime. . . . Literature has become a forbidden, risky, and thus all the more fascinating activity.

Andrei Sinyavsky

The Soviet Union may have lost its appeal to the political imagination, but something in its cultural life continues to compel the attention. For the non-totalitarian West, where censorship is obsolete, and art suffers more from overindulgence than it does from adversity, the cultural stage of the Soviet Union offers rare ingredients for an old-fashioned morality play. There good and evil, in the form of artist and state, face off in recognizable, unambiguous terms. The possibilities of heroism are rekindled as the pen, in classic fashion, goes into battle against the sword. Small wonder that the Russian writer has become an object of fascination, and even a literary subject. Two recent novels about Soviet poets, one by a Russian Jewish emigrant to Israel, Efraim Sevela, the other by an American Jewish intellectual, Arthur A. Cohen, make different use of this subject’s inherent power.

Truth is for Strangers, Sevela’s first novel, and by far the simpler of the two books, is the fictional account of a train ride in the life of Algirdas Pozera, a famous Lithuanian poet, once a fervent Communist and now a middle-aged party faithful, who is returning home from Moscow to Vilnius. Pozera’s journey, beginning with his inability to secure the usual “soft-class tickets,” jolts him out of his normal complacency: first there is an encounter with an intelligent American Lithuanian on a ladies’ tour to the homeland, whose questions, though they elicit from him the standard rehearsed replies, nevertheless touch off a harsh series of memories; then he must share his compartment with a sixteen-year-old girl who has been arrested for theft, and with her two police escorts. Inspired by the girl’s plight, the poet resolves to break with his comfortable role and to attempt a daring rescue of her and of his own faltering talent. As it turns out, the rescue—enacted in forty-four pages—is merely a lower-berth dream, or nightmare. Actually, Pozera has reached the point of no return. He alights at his proper station and takes delight in his escape—from heroism.

The book’s forceful descriptions of the Communist takeover in Lithuania after World War II make it part of the new literature of disclosure. Its narrative energy derives from the revelation of that bloody “truth” which the protagonist, Pozera, conceals at a growing cost to his peace of mind and his work. Yet the story of a poet surviving a crisis of conscience is an all-too-obvious frame for Pozera’s repressed memories—memories of the crazed battle between the Forest Brotherhood of Lithuanian nationalists and the Communists; of the many victims on both sides; and of the disillusioning aftermath of “pacification.” Unfortunately, the artificial structure of the book affects its credibility. Pozera is believable but not convincing, and the recounted events of his life, for all their anecdotal impact, do not add up to a realized literary character. Sevela is somewhat more successful in the short forms of his previous collection, Legends from Invalid Street,1 where his skill as a raconteur is unconstrained by the sustaining demands of a novel.

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Arthur A. Cohen’s novel, A Hero in His Time—about a contemporary Russian Jewish poet who is delegated by the Soviet authorities to attend an International Congress in New York—is politically and artistically a more complex work. The book is concerned not merely with the power of the artist to thwart the evil, mendacious state, but with the poet’s ancient obligation, made more difficult but not impossible in modern times, to keep his ear to the ground, “even to the underground, where we can hear God singing stories.” Cohen has long been a writer in search of a hero, or of the heroic; that search was brought perhaps to its highest pitch in his previous novel, a myth of messianic immanence, In the Days of Simon Stern (1973). Now it takes a political form, in a novel where poetry, taking the place of religious faith, becomes that which denies allegiance to anything less than itself.

The novel opens in Moscow. Yuri Maximovich Isakovsky, a poet of small, tight output, employed as editor of a Soviet quarterly of folk music, The People’s Voice, is unexpectedly to be sent as a delegate to the International Congress of Music and Ethnology in New York. The trip assumes a sinister aspect when Isakovsky is ordered to transmit, as his own, a phony poem, which is actually a computer message in code. He is accompanied on the trip by a personal spy, Vovka Bedkin; a KGB official, Chupkov; and a professional Soviet poet, his former friend Ilia Kolokolov—their presence is intended to insure Isakovsky’s compliance and good behavior. Nevertheless, Isakovsky manages some independence. He succumbs to an attractive American journalist, Greta Engel (like him, a Jew), and takes the musicologists by surprise with a religious interpretation of the sources of art. He also betrays his mission, reworking the KGB message into an authentic poem of his own before handing it over to the American agent. But whereas the slimy Vovka Bedkin takes the occasion of this trip to defect to the West, Yuri finally does not. When the time comes, and despite Greta’s entreaties, he boards the Aeroflot flight back to Russia. “He contemplated the future, prepared, perhaps for the first time, to invest its trial with the kind of tenacity often mistaken for heroism.” Here the book ends.

Isakovsky draws his literary inspiration from the martyred Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam, and thus stands in opposition to that officially-sanctioned Soviet poetry—“a fife and drum corps to the people”—which is represented in the novel by his negative counterpart, the Yevtushenko-style orator, Ilia Alexandrovich Kolokolov (not a Jew). The book’s harshest pronouncement on this literary type comes when Kolokolov, who is lionized in New York as he is in his homeland, appears at a dinner in his honor and reads to the assembled American writers and intellectuals a poem about American atrocities in Vietnam composed of the same images he had once used in a samizdat poem on the entry of Russian troops into Budapest. The authorship of the earlier poem Kolokolov has since denied.

As for the distinguished Americans, the dinner offers Cohen an occasion to debunk them as well. Fashionable liberals with no commitment to anything beyond their self-importance, nor any understanding of totalitarian regimes, they make the predictable comparisons between an America where poetry is considered “silly and useless” and a Soviet Union where poetry has the power to “make a dent.” Set against Isakovsky’s informed personal COMMENTARY on the artistic process in his native land, these views are exposed as irresponsibly naive. For Isakovsky, who is Cohen’s mouthpiece, the practice of literature is rather a kind of halakhah, a rigorously humanizing daily ritual, sufficiently demanding and absorbing to insulate the artist from his destructive environment, with creative opportunities for survival and even exaltation. This theme is reinforced by the major presence in the novel of a minor figure, a folk-song collector named Tyutychev, who returns spiritually intact from his internment in the labor camps because his pious routine of eliciting and memorizing the folk songs of his fellow prisoners has kept him uncontaminated. The book also offers an interpretation of the artist as Jew, suspected, as the Jew often is, of disloyalty, obsessed with the Jew’s “rage for simple justice,” significant and insignificant in the life of the culture in the same inexplicable ways. “What the system doesn’t know about elephants: if an elephant stamps on a mouse, the mouse survives. . . . Only larger creatures get crushed by the elephant’s foot. Field mice, however, survive.” This field mouse, the artist-Jew, is the hero of the novel’s title.

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Well-written and engaging in its ideas, this novel steers an uneven course between comedy and high seriousness. “At its best,” Irving Howe has written, “the political novel generates such intense heat that the ideas it appropriates are melted into its movement and fused with the emotions of its characters.” Little such fusion occurs here. Some of the characters are mere occasions for aspects of social history, and even the hero, though witty and interesting, seems emotionally underdone, too flat for the fictional load he must carry. Isakovsky’s return to Moscow, the intended climax of the plot, is particularly unaffecting, more a fixed consequence of the story-line than the decision of an autonomous character.

In fact, at this concluding point, the very idea of the book becomes treacherous. Having defied the KGB, Isakovsky goes home—as if facing the music in the form of Soviet officialdom were a viable way of testing one’s human mettle. Cohen may have wished here to avoid one form of cheap appeal—to Jewish nationalist revivalism, to anti-Communist politics—which a decision to defect on Isakovsky’s part might perhaps have seemed to serve. But he has dedicated this novel to the memories of Isaac Babel, Peretz Markish, and Osip Mandelstam, three of Soviet Russia’s illustrious writer-victims; how then can he regard the act of returning to that land as a sign of artistic or personal manhood? In fact, the bravado of the conclusion ignores the book’s own endorsement of limited, ironic victories in favor of an older romantic tradition of the artist as defiant martyr; but then, conveniently terminating the action, the book does not have to deal with its consequences. A Hero in His Time would have done better to heed the wisdom offered by Efraim Sevela—that the match between the regulating domination of the state and the moral force exerted by the individual artistic conscience is an uneven one at best, and that (as Yuri Isakovsky also seems to know), the pen is mightier than the sword only within its own proper dominion.

1 Translated by Anthony Kahn, Doubleday, 1974.

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