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

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The Independent Online
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?