IN SEARCH OF

MELANCHOLY BABY

By Vassily Aksyonov

Random House. 224 pp. $15.95

EMIGRATING is something like going to your own funeral," Vassily Aksyonov writes, "the only difference being that after your funeral your nervous system dies down." Aksyonov has full experience of the phenomenon, having settled in this country seven years ago after being invited to leave his native Soviet Union; the crimes for which he was exiled were resistance to official literary censorship and resignation from the Writers' Union in protest against its expulsion of two editors. In Search of Melancholy Baby is Aksyonov's account of his exile, but though he writes harshly about Russian officialdom, it is not a bitter document; to the contrary, it is an exuberant, affectionate celebration of America and of the assimilation process.

Aksyonov has lived and worked in Washington for most of his stay in this country, first as a fellow at the Wilson Center and then as a teacher -- commuting to Baltimore -- at Goucher and Johns Hopkins. He and his wife, Maya, came here after a stint in Los Angeles, and they worried that "if Los Angeles seemed a backwater to us, what would we make of Washington?" The answer was a happy surprise:

" . . . We took to the place from the first. Perhaps it satisfied one minor complex from the e'migre''s bouquet of same. Here on Capitol Hill, between the Congress and its library, with colonnades competing against trees on every side, you can recall Saint Petersburg; walking along the brightly painted facades of Georgetown, you can approximate a Britain that still exists; sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Dupont Circle, you can catch the universal Parisian spirit. Was it the call of the capital? An imperial imperative?"

Whatever it was, it caught Aksyonov in his grasp and shows no sign of letting him go. Much of In Search of Melancholy Baby is a love song to Washington, celebrating everything from its architecture (!) to its ethnic neighborhoods to its political/journalistic society, in which Aksyonov evidently moves with ease and pleasure. But it is a love song tinged with an appropriate measure of regret and vexation. Thus Aksyonov writes sympathetically about the situation of blacks, in Washington and in America generally, and with irritation about the American bureaucracy, which he describes as "younger and more aggressive" than its Russian counterpart. He also writes amusingly about his efforts to come to terms with such bizarre -- at least to a Russian e'migre' -- American institutions as credit cards, banks, mortgages, investment brokerages and taxes.

But readers looking for a harsh critique of these and other aspects of American life will not find it in this book. Aksyonov casts a cool eye on America, but he refuses to be sucked into the reflexive anti-Americanism that is so common elsewhere in the world. "Even now," he writes, "after living in America for more than five years, I keep wondering what provokes so many people in Latin America, Russia and Europe to anti-American sentiment of such intensity that it can only be called hatred," and in the end he concludes: "Let me call a spade a spade: the anti-Americans of this world -- Gabriel Garci'a Ma'rquez included -- are enemies of freedom and friends of a global concentration camp. The paradox of it all is that to remain what it is America must defend even its own anti-Americans."

Not surprisingly, it is the pervasive freedom in America -- the freedom that those of us born here take for granted -- to which Aksyonov returns over and again. Though he is not yet an American citizen (he has been granted permanent residency, and in due time will achieve citizenship), Aksyonov has to all intents and purposes enjoyed a citizen's freedom, and he revels in it. He celebrates freedom in all the usual forms -- freedom to write, to speak, to lead one's life however one pleases -- but he also celebrates what he calls "benevolent inequality":

"Equality is static; it squelches all hope for a new and different life. In the Soviet Union you are doomed to the life of a state employee, and unless you turn thief, nothing in your life will change. After all, everyone is equal (except, of course, for those who are more equal). In America, the land of inequality, your chance -- the chance for you to change your life -- is waiting for you somewhere in the chaos of economic freedom. You may never find it, but the fact that it is there gives your life an entirely different perspective."

As he says with a wry laugh, "Yes, I've turned so 'reactionary' that I now sing the praises of inequality!" But he is right to do so. This native of the Soviet Union, reared on both anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism, understands better than most native Americans that the greatest strength of our social and economic system is not equality but the opportunity to seek inequality -- the capitalist incentive to try for more than one started out with. Precisely because of the background out of which he has come, Aksyonov's paean to capitalist America -- for a paean is what it is -- is all the more meaningful and affecting.

HE'S NOT so kind, though, to American culture. "From within," he writes, "I see with mounting astonishment that for all its scope, the American literary, theatrical and cinematic establishment has certain traits in common with a general store: preference for the hot item, fear of risk, sheer panic at the thought of innovation." He is correct, just as he is when he attacks American writers for self-preoccupation: "The first commandment for professional writers is to move outside themselves. But when young American writers look at their older confre`res and see them writing about their hemorrhoids, they naturally wonder, 'Why can't I?' And so the Atlantics and Esquires of the land are littered with practically indistinguishable stories."

Right on: And right on as well when Aksyonov celebrates jazz and wonders at its low prestige in the land of its origin. When he writes about how jazz "in Russia had been the epitome of America to me," and then observes that "during my first years in America I was shocked to learn that jazz was a rare guest in its homeland," American readers should be chagrined at their own neglect of a native music that means so much more to others. "From the moment I heard a recording of 'Melancholy Baby' . . . " Aksyonov writes, "I couldn't get enough of the revelation coming to me through the shadows . . . that 'every cloud must have a silver lining.' " It is in Russia that he found jazz, in America that he continues his quest for the silver lining; he is in truth a citizen of both nations, but we can be proud to claim him as our own. ::