DURING THE PAST decade, scores of books by Soviet dissenters have been touted as miraculous proof that Russian literature is not dead. Most testified to the opposite - that the numbing agents of Soviet life and Soviet art have drugged even the handful of artists who struggle to create in opposition. Above all, their works suffer from imitation, and from an urge to preach and to proselytize. Although their motives are admirable - the world needs telling, many times and in many ways, of the stunning hypocrisy and destructive power of Soviet rule - a politicized, one-dimensional perspective is antithetical to art, even when the morally justified offer it.
It is necessary to say that many of the unorthodox paintings defaced in one odious way or another by the Soviet authorities are trashy; and that the superbly courageous dissenters do no necessarily write illuminating accounts of their own mistreatment, let alone creat good fiction.
Sasha Sokolov, however, is both a dissenter and an authentic artist.
He was born in Ottawa, Canada where his father was an important Russian spy masquerading as a diplomat. The family returned home at the end of World War II, and Sokolov grew up largely in Moscow's privileged enclaves. His father had become a general in military intelligence; Sokolov became a journalist.
In the early 1970s, tired of lying, Sokolov abandoned journalism and moved to a remote area of the Volga, where he wrote A School for Fools. It had hardly more hope for publication in Russia that Trotsky's literary criticism, but copies circulated in samizdat, had a few made their way abroad. Even before a Russian-language edition was published in 1975, the author's identity had been discovered. The general tried to have his son declared insane and committed to a KGB mental hospital, and Sokolov's Austrian fiancee was prevented from rejoining him in Moscow. But the international publicity of a dual hunger strike in Moscow and Vienna won Sokolov an exit visa, and he became a Canadian citizen.
Now his book has been translated into English, and his publishers are declaring it "One of the most exciting events in Russian literature since the 1920s." A quotation on the dust jacket asserts that the novel "will undoubtedly come to be regarded as one of the great classics of Russian prose." This is not an impossible claim in light of Sokolov's exquisite talent and exalted vision. He may indeed be the proof that Russian literature - the kind that dazzles the senses and squeezes the soul - is alive.
I say "may" because even after a second reading I defy anyone to pierce more than half the layers of hints, meanings, contradictions, parables, tales, shadows of other books and of earlier parts of this one, streams of consciousness and uncried cris de coeurs. Much escapes me; and I have lived for years in Russia, and consider myself at home with its life, symbols and fairy-tale visions. Western readers will be in grave need of those ordinarily tedious distractions called translator's notes, at the very least to explain the associations prompted by the characters' names, all of which have "key" significance.
Sokolov's book centers on a special school for retarded and disturbed pupils set in a suburban dacha area outside Moscow. (The superbly lyrical and mystical descriptions would alone make the book a prize.) One schizophrenic young pupil, who does most of the narrating, is looking for a teacher. The book offers a Russian Saul whose death and reincarnation are a major motif. He is a simple, barefooted man, and a symbolic figure: "For he, your teacher, is not among the living, that's the trouble, that's the rub, not among the living, but you - you go on living, until you die . . ." Despite the recent Russian tendency to pound points home, the themes of rebirth and a life's purposelessness are handled with a delicacy equal to their demands.
I have never liked experimental or "difficult" books; but Sokolov is an exception. One of his propositions is that one day does not follow the next in a person's consciousness or imagination - and the book's dreamlike fluctuation of time, accompanied bpy the character's sometimes opaque moods, would be confusing enough, even if the narrator's voice did not shift from one part of his enchantingly schizophrenic self to another, or to other persons living and dead. The reader can only drift along in the fusion of fantasy with keen observation until, in the final pages, "our interrelations are becoming more and more sharply defined, as if they weren't relations, but a boat floating along the bemisted Lethe on an early morning when the fog is breaking up and the boat keeps getting closer." But although one realizes even before this that the narrator's other self is (sometimes) a water lily, the boat never quite arrives, and one turns immediately - and gratefully - to an almost symphonic second reading.
Although Sokolov miraculously avoids one-dimensional political themes, vast digust with the Soviet system is implicit on every page. But to call this a book about that is to call Hamlet an antimonarchist tract. As in the best of Russian literature, the subject is as large as the meaning, or the meaninglessness, of life.
Scholars are already comparing Sokolov to Gogol and Nabokov. Saint Exupery, Andrei Platonov, William Faulkner and others might be added to the list. But Sokolov's voice is his own; it is his startlingly sure originality that evokes other masters. While more genuinely moral than Solzhenitsyn, he is not trying to pull Russian literature (and Russian society?) back to the 19th century. He takes it forward, toward where it would have been without socialist realism's suffocation of the 1920s. What is more, Sokolov likes people in ways alien to Solzhenitsyn. He is fighting no one; he is simply humane.
The voice is amazingly sensitive and imaginative, gloriously lucid of language and - especially for those familiar with Soviet life - full of broad comedy and whimsical wit. For all its gloominess, this strange novel is a celebration of life.