Tired of politics? Try dog's giblets

MOSCOW STATIONS by Venedikt Yerofeev, trs Stephen Mulrine, Faber pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Venedikt Yerofeev's short novel was an influential piece of underground literature, written while the author was a workman employed on a cable link at Sheremetyevo airport in 1969. It then circulated as samizdat and was published in 1989, three years before Yerofeev's death, in a journal called Sobriety and Culture. One could scarcely imagine a less appropriate home for the work (except, perhaps, Health and Efficiency): if there is one certainty in Moscow Stations, it is that the neck of a vodka bottle provides the nearest passageway to freedom from the oppressions of Soviet culture; the fixed point of reference in this Russian Under the Volcano is the effect of alcohol on the human brain.

This can be detected even behind the overt organising principle of the book, which is a train journey towards Petuskhi, "where the birds are never silent ... where the jasmine never fails" - in other words, that ideal state which is the goal (alas, unattainable) of any serious alcoholic excursion; and starting in early morning from the Kursk station in Moscow, before the bars open, with a desperate need for the hair of the dog, as "Venya Yerofeev", the narrator, calculates how the first drinks of the day can be interspersed with measured doses of food, in order to control nausea without wasting vodka money.

The stages of this cyclical progress from hangover to hangover are marked by spiritual hallucination, scientific and statistical delirium, and black humour. As the train progresses, he offers reflections on religion and politics, sobriety and culture, the classification of hiccups and recipes for cocktails with names like "The Tear of a Komsomol Girl" and "Dog's Giblets", where the grace notes are supplied by nail varnish, meths, eau- de-cologne or "Wealthy Guest" shampoo. Quantities are measured in grammes/millilitres, the 700 that come to the standard bottle of stolichnaya, zubrovka, moskovskaya or limonnaya being enough to produce vomiting and semi-paralysis, followed by unconsciousness, in a light-to-moderate drinker. Meanwhile, Venya (no moderate) tenders his supply of "Aunt Klava's Kiss" in exchange for some vodka from his fellow-passengers, as they discuss the propriety of visiting a woman when very drunk. "My, my!" one of them exclaims. "We're just like characters out of Turgenev, sitting around, arguing about love."

"Every profession deserves respect," Yerofeev says, on behalf of the professional drinker, in an ironic reference to one of the principles of Socialist society. Is his book, as its blurb claims, "a lesson in the current events of the Russian soul", or merely a window on the underside of the Brezhnev era? Yerofeev was not one of those dissidents whose works found their meaning in opposition to the Communist regime and lost it when the regime vanished. He has no political programme and his few references to "Over There" do not suggest he saw any hope of salvation in the "secretive, shifty eyes, full of fear", characteristic of capitalist society. He would have had even less time for the free-market New Russians, whose spiritual yearnings seem to extend no further than a couple of chorus girls and a Jeroboam of Jim Beam. But he also claims to feel contempt and revulsion for the younger generation, "who don't give a shit for anything".

So, while Yerofeev's minor classic may have influenced more nihilistic younger writers, it doesn't entirely share their ethos. Moscow Stations is a hopeless cry of protest against the culture and sobriety of its time, the so-called Years of Stagnation, but in the name of a more humane culture, a culture of insobriety. Afterwards, he lapsed into virtual silence; to use his own analogy, like a man who, after the merriment induced by the first 750 grammes of vodka, goes quiet as he starts to top it up with the next 700. Does his calm mean that he is becoming more sober? No, "he's just pig-drunk ... It's exactly the same with me: I haven't become less lonely these 30 years, my heart hasn't got any harder, quite the opposite." After a litre or more, however, even the hardened drinker may drift into a realm beyond expression. Unfortunately, as a vocation, vodka proves hard to reconcile with sustained literary production.