THE YAWNING HEIGHTS will probably be widely purchased and talked about, but seldom read from cover to cover. As a work of literature it is in many respects a disaters. At the same time it is the most thorough and profound examination of the Soviet regime, from the viewpoint of a disaffected intellectual, that has yet appeared. Its author, a former philosophy professor at the University of Moscow, because of this book [published only abroad] was shunned and harassed and finally stripped of his citizenship in 1978. He now lives and teaches in Munich.
Not a novel, The Yawning Heights is a frequently diffuse and inchoate mixture of lampoon, sober argument, diatribe and wild fantasy, its dominant tone one of monumental disgust. In a great many places its analyses of Soviet society are brilliantly incisive; in many others and the book seems clumsy, turgid, repetitious and simply tedious. Its virtues come from Zinoviev's acute moral awareness and his intimate, brooding insight into the psychology of his people and their rulers. Its defects come largely from his inability, or unwillingness, to curb his own invention, to refrain from all-inclusiveness, and to observe the bounds of good taste.
Zinoviev chooses to portray Soviet life in the form of largely transparent allegory. His locale is the mythical country of Ibansk [a pun combining the common name Ivan and the Russian verb yebat -- "to f- -k"], where everyone has the faceless surname Ibanov. His protagonists -- government officials, intellectuals, writers and artists -- are known solely by tag names, such as Teacher and Demagogue. Of these figures [disembodied and undeveloped, they cannot be called characters], some are clearly identifiable, such as Boss [Stalin], Hog [Khrushchev], Truth-teller [Solzhenitzyn], Dauber [the sculptor Ernest Neizvestniy]. Others are based on lesser known persons, and some are undoubtedly composites.
The main intellectual threads of the book are to traced in the monologues and dialogues of those figures who represent the intelligentsia -- notably Dauber and several figures who seem to be spokesmen, at least in part, for the author himself -- Bawler, Schizophrenic, Chatterer and Slandered. Through them Zinoviev scrutinizes and savagely criticizes in depth almost every conceivable feature of Soviet extistence and the Soviet moral climate. The Party, education, social institutions and behavior, individual and mass deception as a way of life, intellectual and artistic whoredom, the repression of creativity, covert envy of the West, and the cynical manipulation of power and privilege -- these are merely a few of his targets. Nothing is exempt, including such phenomena, admired by hopeful Western liberals, as samizdat, Moscow's Taganka theater, and the very idea of detente. The book is indeed an antidote for any simplistic thinking about the U.S.S.R. Writing as a sophisticated nihilist, Zinoviev even makes a cogent argument for the notion that everything, including dissidence itself, is controlled from the top.
Although these nicknamed figures carry the main burden of Zinoviev's mordant analysis, a variety of the other devices come into play, including hyperbole, conceits that get crazily out of hand, paradox, and exaggerated farce. Frequent passages recount the absurd history of Ibansk, and others, entitled "History yet to come," lampoon communist dreams of the glorious future. The following suggests the spiritual emptiness of life in Ibansk:
"ibanskian ideology is only a means towards human behavior. It is a means of making a career, a means of enslavement, of restraint, of brutalising and so on. It does not become a man's inner state, something which determines the way he acts. It is merely something that is used by certain people against others, and even here their acts are determined not by the ideology but by other factors.
The "other factors," as the author details in hunderes of ways, amount to an amalgam of dog-eat-dog self-interest.
The greatest value of this book lies in its intricate study of the workings of Soviet society from the perspective of a penetrating but lofty observer with a talent for abstraction, evaluation and caricature. The perspective of the man-in-the-street can only be duduced. In an effort to evoke the feelings of the ordinary citizen, however, Zinoviev couches much of his argument in citations of cynical, earthy vermacular, obscence jokes and bawdy verses -- many of them directed at the Soviet hierarchy. Some of it, resembling ordinary American barracks humor, obviously comes from the concentration camps, an orgin that insures grim authenticity, and the remainder is equally authentic "mat," the hallowed Russian language of filth.
At one point Zinoviev observes that "outrageous verses is a joke spoken in earnest, but in whose serious intent no one wants to believe." On the contrary, there is no mistaking the serious intent of these passages. The trouble is that most of them are less funny than smuttily abusive, and the great majority of the verses comes out in translation as colorless doggerel. Like much of the humor in this book [dispite numerous passages of deft irony and engaging farce], they are not nearly as amusing as the author obviously intends them to be.
It is necessary to say this because a book that is billed as satire [the jacket invites a comparison to Swift and Rabelais] must be judged, at least in part, in terms of its humor. This reviewer found its unbridled wackiness to be often unbearable, a kind of satiric overkill. But as an extremely intelligent, sad, compassionate study of a society that is now, according to Zinoviev, in the grip of a colossal boredom, it is remarkable. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Geoffrey Moss