YUZ ALESHKOVSKY, well-known in his native Russia as a novelist and songwriter, has revived the tradition of Gogol. Kangaroo, his first novel published in English, is a great satire based on fantasy. It will stand as a landmark for literary historians and Russian writers of the future.
Aleshkovsky sees himself as a maker of myth, which he uses to create an absurd, phantasmagorical novel about a crook, a kangaroo and a kangaroo court. The main character in Kangaroo, Fan Fanych, is selected for a special public-relations event intended to celebrate the anniversary of the KGB's "very first case." The event will be a mock trial, with charges dreamed up by a computer, since Party henchmen are falling behind schedule and not producing convictions fast enough.
Given the opportunity to select the crime to which he is to confess, Fan Fanych rejects having schemed to print bank notes with portraits of Peter the Great on the hundreds and Bobrov the soccer player on the fifties, or having spied for 77 countries, including Antarctica. Instead, he confesses to having "viciously raped and murdered the oldest kangaroo in the Moscow Zoo on a night between July 14, 1789, and January 9, 1945." In exchange for his cooperation in the show trial, he is promised unlimited Western movies, his choice of cell mates, Western newspapers, etc. during his imprisonment, because, of course, conviction is a certainty.
After the trial he is jailed with those true believers who made the Soviet revolution and spends years in a rat slaughterhouse, where he grows a third eye in the back of his head. Ultimately released, he is awarded 200 for being the first person to rape and murder a kangaroo. (The money has been willed by an Australian kangaroophobe, irked by the marsupials' persistent munching in his garden.) The Soviet government takes its 99 percent tax, and Fan Fanych returns to the "outside."
Russian writers in exile are now renewing the rich artistic currents which characterized Russian literature in the early years of this century. At the same time, they are returning to the Western roots from which Russian literature grew. In the case of Kangaroo, the affinities are with Kafka's Trial, but even more so they are with a Russian work -- Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading.
TO TRULY APPRECIATE Kangaroo, it is important to understand the context from which it arises. Censorship for Soviet writers has taken on a role analogous to that of rhyme and meter in traditional poetry. The writer's message, just like the poet's sonnet, must fit into very specific conventions. Many Russian writers come to place such importance on slipping at least something past the censor that it becomes a goal in and of itself. And without that goal, many emigre' writers become disoriented, lack a sense of direction. Not so Aleshkovsky. He continues in his role as mythmaker, fantasist
*Myth in the context of the official soviet literary code of Socialist Realism is just as impossible as political satire.. And what of Socialist Fantasy? This sort of literature just does not exist in Soviet Russia today, except for the work of a few authors like Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, whose science fiction novels are likewise frowned upon by the official critics.
Kangaroo is replete with specifically Soviet references. Western readers will have to do their homework to appreciate everything that is going on. The translator's heroic efforts notwithstanding, an entire dimension of obscenities and criminal slang is inevitably lost, and even if the flavor of such elements in the original could be rendered in English, the impact of such language in the jaded West is necessarily of a lesser magnitude than in the relatively puritanical atmosphere of Russian letters.
But this is a problem which arises with virtually all Russian novels translated into Western languages. The question of how well literature "travels" from one country to another is a particularly sore point for Russian writers. Literature in the Soviet Union has been developing along separate lines for so long that no Soviet novel has become popular in the West without there first being a political hullabaloo. Certainly, the straits in which the satirist finds himself are the cruelest of all, since his western audience is unfamiliar with the context he is satirizing.
But despite all these drawbacks, this is both a funny novel and a novel with a serious message about the evils of totalitarianism. And as you follow Fan Fanych's efforts to work himself into the role of a sex fiend lusting after elderly kangaroos, you will remember Gogol's "laughter through the tears."