Madonna From Russia, by Yuri Druzhnikov, translated by Thomas Moore

A preposterous tale populated by cardboard cut-out caricatures
Click to follow

Picaresque tales with plots that depend on misunderstandings between Russians (or Ukrainians) and the English (or Americans) almost form a genre of their own. The archetypal such tale, Leskov's "The Steel Flea", owes its greatness to the brilliant malapropisms through which Leskov mocks both the brutality of Russian bureaucracy and the weirdness, to an outsider, of English ways. Other examples are Anthony Burgess's Honey for the Bears, Zinovy Zinik's The Mushroom-picker and, recently, Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

These works, for all their wit, are more serious than they first appear. Burgess's novel represents the collapse of his own marriage; Zinik's title alludes to the mushroom clouds of nuclear explosions; Lewycka includes an account of a Ukrainian family's wartime experiences.

Madonna from Russia is both less witty and less serious. This account of the Californian adventures of Lily Bourbon, a 96-year-old Russian femme fatale and former mistress of Lenin, able to turn her hand to everything from prostitution to socialist realist verse, grows not only more preposterous with each chapter, but also duller. What moves the reader of Lewycka's novel is the way the most apparently stereotypical characters become real - as if forced, kicking and screaming, to recognise one another's humanity. Druzhnikov's characters do the opposite; even as caricatures, they grow sketchier.

Druzhnikov's best-known novel, Angels on the Head of a Pin, set in Moscow in 1969 and written before he emigrated in 1977, was praised by Solzhenitsyn and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Either their praise is unjustified, or his talents have declined. Here the observations about modern America are ponderous: "Flirtation and courting are now termed sexual harassment. The difference between the sexes is preserved only in that American men shave their faces, while the women shave their legs."

The jokes about the Soviet Union are no less ponderous. After one of Lily's verses for Soviet schoolchildren, which ends "But if enemies attack our Motherland, / Stalin the Great will lead us to the fray!", the narrator tells us that "in later editions Lenin replaced Stalin and then... Pushkin did, while it seems that Brezhnev was never vouchsafed the honour". Readers who know nothing about the Soviet Union may feel puzzled by this sentence; readers with some knowledge will feel that they have read this kind of thing before.