BOOK REVIEW / Forbidden zones in the land of the free: The gingerbread race - Andrei Navrozov: Picador, pounds 17.99

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AT ITS simplest level, this is a tale of two closed worlds and two censorships. One is the Moscow created by the Soviet establishment, where for an intellectual the acquisition of a banned book is a far greater prize than a much- needed load of black market firewood. The other is the world of the East Coast American establishment, a world that seems no less closed to the teenage immigrant, Andrei Navrozov. Both worlds, according to the now 37-year-old writer, have their forbidden zones.

The Navrozovs were accustomed to being outsiders; indeed, they seem almost to have sought this status. In Moscow they belonged to that privileged caste of Russian intellectuals who were able to opt out of Soviet society, living their lives in large houses and idyllic seclusion in villages set aside for the cultural elite. The family were in the Soviet Union, but not of it. None the less, they were not dissidents in the usual sense. They simply separated themselves from the system; they were no use to the system, and were eventually allowed to emigrate.

In America, father and son again found themselves kicking against the pricks, thinking the unthinkable. Here, though, they risked nothing - or so it seemed to them - if they committed their thoughts to paper. Which is where their problems began. Navrozov senior was sued for millions in a libel suit brought by Golda Meir. Like many Russian emigres, he did not understand the offence of libel. His son, Andrei - the author of this autobiography - bought the rights to an almost extinct literary journal at Yale University and turned it (after incurring huge debts) into a forum for the views of the Reaganite elite. He fell foul of the university authorities, which disliked the continued use of 'Yale' in so illiberal a magazine's title, and he embarked on a crusade against what he saw as censorship no less pernicious than that of the Soviet establishment.

Navrozov's saga makes for a peculiar autobiography, and not only because he is writing it at so early an age. He has a fervently expressed thesis which, to most people familiar with both countries, will seem misguided, not to say downright wrong. This thesis is that the United States, much-vaunted 'land of the free' is well on the way to becoming as closed-minded as the Soviet Union was. As described in the book's subtitle, he lives 'a life in the closing world once called free'.

To draw this conclusion from the fate of a small, idiosyncratic magazine generously funded by American right-wingers but spurned by a university often seen as the embodiment of East Coast liberalism is surely going considerably further than the facts justify. Yes, there are instances - and more of them than is comfortable - where US universities have hushed up truths they did not like, but in America there are plenty more outlets, plenty more financial backers, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise, even as a warning of what might come about in the worst of all American worlds.

There are peculiarities, too, in Navrozov's language and general mode of expression which make parts of his book hard to comprehend. He makes no bones about having a very high opinion of his own abilities and the justice of his views. He is profligate with literary and historical allusion far beyond the point of mere showing off. There are linguistic infelicities that betray his incomplete bilingualism and should have been smoothed out in the editing - even if it meant an argument with the headstrong author.

And yet, and yet . . . There are also passages in this book where the author's sense of style and cadence combine with his bilingualism to produce exquisite linguistic elegance and originality. And the form he has chosen, the premature, stylised and often internalised autobiography, while alien - that word again - to English literature, has distinguished antecedents in the literature of Central Europe and Russia.