BOOK REVIEW / A good laugh from the era of stagnation: 'The Soul of a Patriot' - Evgeny Popov Trans. Robert Porter: Collins Harvill, 8.99 pounds

Related Topics
WRITING a funny book about the stagnation of Brezhnev's Russia is not easy, but Evgeny Popov manages it. In contrast to the doom and gloom that overburdens much Russian fiction produced by the so- called 'lost generation', The Soul of a Patriot reverberates with laughter.

Presented to the reader as a collection of letters addressed to a certain Ferfichkin, The Soul of a Patriot is a combination of autobiography, family history and commentary on everyday Soviet life. If the identity of the epistles' correspondent remains mysterious, confusion also surrounds the identity of the patriot alluded to in the book's title: is it Ferfichkin, Popov, or Brezhnev, referred to throughout as 'Him Who Once Was'?

The comedy of Popov's prose arises largely from the blatant incongruities between an uncompromising and bombastic official discourse and a chatty, impudent vernacular. Reverential allusions to A P Chekhov are pitted against flippant familial yarns about the narrator's grandfather, 'who grew real red watermelons in Siberian conditions, and fed his children on them till they burst, and pissed in bed at night'. Throughout the novel Popov uses journalistic slogans and official jargon, peppered with references to target quotas, statistics and performance levels. That neatly parodies Social Realism, the style which purports to focus on facts but is often loaded with ideological baggage.

The shrewd and bawdy narrator is aware of comedy's blind spots. From time to time he looks back at the laughter he has provoked, interrupting himself, as he expresses it, 'like a dog who's had a tin can tied to its tail by some hooligans'. Often, this delinquent, boozy and TV-addicted narrator is the butt of his own jokes. He is singularly unpoetic and betrays his descent from the supreme loafer of Russian literature, Oblomov.

The novel displays a playful, ironic engagement with Russian literary history, as Popov satirises the stereotypical portrayal of the literary greats with their starched shirts, frock-coats and shaking beards. Similarly, he undermines the uncritical veneration that has been afforded poets such as Yevtushenko and Voznesensky in the West, as well as in Russia, while other writers have been silenced or ignored. This isn't a bitter satire, but a teasing magnanimous humour that sometimes verges on the lyrical. Thus, as the narrator's train pulls into the city of Voronezh, where the poet Osip Mandelstam was exiled by Stalin, he remarks: 'And now we're in Voronezh, its streets are straight and full of elegant buildings. Mandelstam lived here, and Mandelstam lived there, and there's no Mandelstam there, and there's no Mandelstam here, and there's no Mandelstam anywhere . . .'

On the threshold of change and the demise of the 'era of stagnation' - symbolised by the death of Brezhnev in November 1982 - Popov explores the position of the writer in Soviet society. In a gesture that harks back to the peripatetic protagonists of 19th-century literature, The Soul of a Patriot begins in a train crossing Russia. Wandering becomes a metaphor in the novel as the disoriented narrator stalks through the streets of Moscow and even includes maps of his itineraries in the book. 'We're off]' the narrator declares towards the end of the novel, echoing Yury Gagarin's exclamation on the take-off of the first manned space flight in 1961. For Popov the perennial question remains: where is the Russian rocket hurtling to in its new-found freedom?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page


General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk