Alexander Kaletski's "Metro" might have been a more informative portrait of the Soviet Union if Kaletski had made clearer exactly when he emigrated, but nothing could have made it more bleak. Nothing in Kaletski's Russia functions as it ought; the drama-school head is a lecherous incompetent, the landlord is an alcoholic of epic scale, the service personnel are venal bribe-takers and the police are anti-Semitic bullies.
Even the positive characters in "Metro" seem a bad lot. The friends of Kaletski's hero in their Moscow underground are a cretinous blackmailer, an informer and a mountainous dissolute who thinks nothing of pitching his friends into serious trouble for the sake of some arcane artistic effect. Given the way in which Kaletski depicts Russia, a reader has little difficulty sympathizing when the hero's girlfriend Lena, the only wholly positive figure in the book, wails, "I hate my native land."
Kaletski's tale of life as a young actor and singer in the Soviet Union, leading to emigration, is familiar; in its dozen years the third great wave of Soviet emigration has produced scores of such books, thousands of variants of this tale. Even so, "Metro" is different. For one thing, Kaletski seems to write in English, a feat which anyone who has ever sweated over a foreign language can only salute. Kaletski is no Nabokov, no Conrad, but his prose is witty, vivid and amusing.
Also unusual, but a good deal more unsettling, is that "Metro" is called a novel, not a memoir or autobiography; this distinction would seem much less odd if Kaletski had not called his hero Alexander K--, and given K--'s girlfriend the same name as that of the woman to whom Kaletski has dedicated "Metro." Probably this insistence that "Metro" is a novel is a claim for license of imagination, but the price in a book that seems so autobiographical is ultimately the novel's credibility.
This question of what is real, what made up, would not be so worrisome if Kaletski had not made his K-- such an artful, conniving improver on truth. Even in childhood K-- was "an expert cryer" whom "nobody could stand . . . even for a minute" if he did not get his way. As an adult K-- bribes his way onto trains, fiddles his way through drama school and into a job, escapes military obligation by feigning madness, and even abandons his wife to defect to America (though a trip from the Upper East Side to the Bowery persuades him to undefect hastily). When K-- finally does leave, it is as a Jew.
Kaletski fudges this issue a bit, but implies that K-- is a full ethnic Russian who assumes a fictional ethnicity solely as a means of leaving, presumably because "I don't want to run away like a loser. I want to walk away like a winner." K-- is pressured and baited, but swears staunchly "No! I will never renounce" Jewishness, but since K-- has no intention of going to Israel and shows no shred of Jewish identity, this declaration rings much more self-serving and opportunistic than brave.
In other words, K-- seems motivated essentially by self-interest, which may be fully understandable in the confines of the world Kaletski describes. Still, it is hard to find any real standard by which to distinguish K--'s self-interest (which Kaletski applauds) from the self-interest of the other Soviet characters, whom Kaletski so fully detests. Lack of such a standard seems the more acute since Kaletski's Russia is the dysfunctional nightmare he describes in part because no one has any scruples about telling others whatever they want to hear, if it will bring the speaker some advantage.
It is for this reason that Kaletski's vagueness about time is unsettling, since it is impossible to know which U.S.S.R. he is describing. In turn this hints that there is no difference, that in 1937, 1953, 1968 and 1985 the Soviet Union remains an equal, and therefore absolute evil. Conceivably that may be the case, but the sensational nature of some of Kaletski's incidents also suggests that "Metro" might be tailored to its audience, and Kaletski is telling us what he thinks we want to hear.
Unquestionably that choice is a novelist's prerogative to make, one of a western writer's freedoms, and it is for freedom that K--, if not Kaletski, has left his native land. Still, the reader too has a freedom, to wish for a little more, in this instance the answer to a question Kaletski has one of his KGB men ask: "What is freedom except weakness? Where there's freedom, everything is permitted, everything is good . . . freedom didn't give anything to anybody except decadence." K-- shrugs the question away as foolish, its answer self-evident, but many of the issues Kaletski raises in "Metro" seem in fact to support this KGB philosopher.
As it is, "Metro" is an entertaining story of living in and leaving the Soviet Union, but it might have been a stronger and more meaningful book if Kaletski had used his language skill, his talent and the depth-perception that emigration provides to force K-- to answer his tormentor's question.