It was at the apartment of a mutual friend in Moscow that I first encountered Alexander Zinoviev. He had a handsome, distinctly Russian face and was wearing a leather jacket over a black turtleneck sweater that gave him the look of a 1950s Greenwich Village intellectual. He quickly let me know that he was a professor of philosophy at Moscow University, was planning to publish a book abroad and was therefore expecting trouble from the authorities. The impression he left was that, as a correspondent for an American newspaper, I should be interested in him. It was a kind of putative dissident's hustle, bravery of a sort, laden with cynicism.
The recollection came to me in the course of reading "The radiant Future" because the book gave me the same queasy feeling I had about Zinoviev in meeting him.
It is, in its way, a legitimate work, a savage critique of Soviet society, yet just stereotyped enough in its insights to make me suspect a rip-off. It takes no great genius anymore to portray the corruption of Marxism that is Russian-style communism as grimly mendacious, boringly vacant and cruelly insensitive. And since this is the essential message of "The Radiant Future," one comes away with an unsatisfying sense of I-knew-that-already-so-what-else-is-new.
The book is Zinoviev's second to be published in the United States. The first, the one for which he was punished by the Soviets with loss of his academic positions and eventually his citizenship, was called "The Yawning Heights." It was a vast, sprawling parable that excited many reviewers with the breadth of its satire and ambitiousness of its scope. Putting the proposition in another -- and admittedly unkind -- way, the book was sufficiently long and obscure to qualify as serious.
"The Radiant Future" is a lot shorter and a lot less obscure in the sense that is characters and dialogue are presented as concrete individuals at instantly recognizable moments. The novel is still the product of a philosopher rather than a novelist because it consists mainly of conversations with little plot or action to get in the way of ideas. If the purpose of fiction is either to entertain or illuminate. "The Radiant Future" succeeds only in the second category since it really isn't diverting and plainly is meant to be instructional.
For instance, the first paragraph of the chapter called "On Ideology" opens: "On the way to my 'study' I came to the conclusion that the real ideology of the privileged classes of our society is cynicism . . . Cynicism is in every respect a rationalist idelogy." Now, that is certainly a bitter observation, declared rhetorically and pondered here rather than illustrated as it might be in a novel where things happen.
To the extent that there is a structure to "The Radiant Future," it is the saga of a middling Moscow intellectual -- head of the department of theoretical problems of the methodology of scientific communism at the Human Sciences Institute of the Academy of Science.
In the course of what amount to dozens of little essays involving primarily family and a friend named Anton, we see the extent to which our hero (never named) confronts the emptiness in himself and what is going on around him. Even the dissidents get a knock:
"If you've got any idea of attacking the system," a relative asserts, "don't behave like all those idiotic dissidents. They spend all their time debating all those high flown ideas like freedom of speech, creative individuality, and the right to emigrate, and never a word about what really matters -- that there isn't a sausage worthy of the name in the shops."
This particular notion, incidentally, is an interesting one, given the fact that in Poland the source of the present political turbulence was basically economic in origin (the price of meat) with pressure for other reforms following: tummies first, hearts and minds later.
One poor hero is demoralized by the unmasking of what goes on around him and fails in the end to achieve his goal of election to the Academy of Sciences. For so disaffected a Russian as Zinoviev, the sole benefit of achieving any honors in the Soviet state is access to special stores and other perquisites, privileges that require living a life in which lies are the lingua franca. There is purity therefore to failure and rejection in the Soviet system. Only imprisonment or exile represent integrity in a society as decadent as the one Zinoviev reviles in "The Radiant Future."
By that measure Alexander Zinoviev can personally rest easy. As an exile, his virture is assured