THE COMMISSARIAT OF ENLIGHTENMENT

By Ken Kalfus

Harper Collins. 295 pp. $24.95

With his two short-story collections, Thirst and PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, Ken Kalfus emerged as that rarest of all fiction-writing beasts: an itchy-footed American writer at home in the world. This is not quite the same thing as an expatriate writer, of whom we of course have many. Nor is it the same as a spy novelist whose reluctant hero racks up the frequent-flyer miles while wishing he were warming a deck chair on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Kalfus's protagonists are Parisian-Arab roue{acute}s, Irish nannies, small-town baseball players and Russians of all stripes. Like Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie, he has an enviable ability to inhabit many skins and an uncanny eye for detail, which he leavens with a quippy, sad-manic humor. All of these qualities are on copious display in The Commissariat of Enlightenment, a good novel that reads like an early draft of an outstanding novel.

Commissariat opens in 1910, in Astapovo, a tiny hamlet to which Leo Tolstoy, having fled his marriage and responsibilities (he was a count) and intending to join a sect of his followers in southern Russia, has come to die. Pilgrims, journalists, Party members, Tolstoy's relations and other assorted hangers-on have flocked to the rural town, braving a country that Kalfus describes, timelessly, as "this impossible empire and its limitless, valueless steppes, its inaccessible forests, its untappable mineral veins; its teeming, unfinished rivers, its lazy and superstitious natives -- this hyperborean Congo." This sense of wild, boundless incompleteness, eternally teetering between greatness and primevalism, strikes even the most casual visitor to Russia; Kalfus, a Russophile and for many years a Muscovite, evokes it beautifully in his portrayal of this podunk that suddenly becomes the center of the world.

Among those drawn to Astapovo are the novel's two protagonists: Vorobev, an ambitious young scientist who seeks fame by embalming Tolstoy, and Gribshin, a camera operator for Pathe{acute} who wants to film the events surrounding Tolstoy's death. Skulking in the novel's shadows and hovering menacingly around these protagonists -- mirroring his role in Soviet history, from the Soviet Union's inception to its collapse -- is Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.

Stalin approaches Gribshin because "the lens has no motives, no class background, no secret interests . . . . When we gaze at the cinema screen . . . we know that we peer through a transparent windowpane onto reality." Stalin here is "privy to thoughts and ambitions that Gribshin had yet to articulate," though the Soviet and Stalinist idea of truth had little to do with transparency. Gribshin thus begins a glorious career as one of Stalin's favorites, landing a post-revolutionary job in the Commissariat of Enlightenment as a filmmaker -- a producer of sanctioned, pre-approved agitprop -- having nothing to do with the preservation of reality and everything to do with the control and creation of it.

Stalin's dealings with Vorobev are more indirect (and more surprising, best left to discovery rather than preemptive narration in a review), but they anchor the book's second half, set in 1924, in the chaotic aftermath of the Russian revolution. At the center of this half is an extraordinary scene in a village monastery, Saint Svyetoslav of Gryaz, in which a representative of inexorable historical forces -- a Soviet revolutionary, in other words -- illuminates the church with electric light. As he ecstatically announces to the terrified peasants that "with electric light, Soviet power reveals the truth of science against the falsehoods of superstition," the light's heat cooks the egg-based tempera paints used for the icons and singes the ancient wood beams. Consequently, "the ghosts behind the icons emerged, along with the artists' preliminary sketchmarks, errant brushstrokes, abandoned gambits. The figures of the saints simplified until they resembled newspaper cartoons or caricatures." When the Soviet soldiers pry open Svyetoslav's grave, a plume of dust rises, which the parishioners uniformly believe to be the spirit of the saint ascending to heaven. In this section, Kalfus deftly plays literal and metaphorical meanings off each other: The revolutionary's light of truth is a terrifying blasphemy to the peasants, while the saint's spirit is nothing but dust and bones to the Soviets.

Kalfus excels at these telling moments, but Commissariat still seems like a beautiful skeleton with too little flesh. He fails to transcend the short-story writer's essential reliance on implication to create character; Gribshin and Vorobev remain ciphers animated by the ideas that they represent. Novelists who lead this strongly with the brain (Richard Powers, Iris Murdoch) need to provide emotional ballast as well; Kalfus, unfortunately, gives us too little of that in Commissariat. Still, no American author now writing has as deep, as intuitive and as effortless a grasp of Russia in all its infuriating and beguiling glory as Ken Kalfus. If the novel is less than great, it is nonetheless a glorious effort: a collection of lapidary moments strung together with gossamer. *

Jon Fasman has written about Russia for the Moscow Times and Legal Affairs.