Better Dead Than Red

Novelist Ken Kalfus performs an autopsy on the Soviet state; Wendell Steavenson has Georgia on her mind

Ken Kalfus,
The Commissariat Of Enlightenment
Ecco

Wendell Steavenson
Stories I Stole
Grove

It is 1910, and we are quite literally aboard the engines of history. Count Leo Tolstoy lies dying in the remote Russian railway station Astapovo, his eminence undimmed by the pneumonia that is stealing his breath. The lingering nature of his death affords sufficient time for a full-fledged media circus to infest the surrounding village. Sleeping cars roll in bursting with vegetarians and pacifists, reporters from around the globe, new-media entrepreneurs eager to test out a moving-picture camera, a quack doctor eagerly displaying the embalmed bodies that are his calling card, and leading Bolsheviks a few years from their own star turn. Astapovo, that is, helps invent modernity.

Wendell Steavenson: "I was voluntarily sipping Borjomi, salty Georgian mineral water, hating the Russians and sitting about doing nothing. Perhaps I was becoming a Georgian."
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum
Wendell Steavenson: "I was voluntarily sipping Borjomi, salty Georgian mineral water, hating the Russians and sitting about doing nothing. Perhaps I was becoming a Georgian."

Handled phantasmagorically, this would furnish a plot for Victor Pelevin or some other as yet untranslated Russian surrealist; one current Moscow bestseller features numbered replicants from literary tradition (Pasternak-3, Akhmatova-7, et al.) copulating madly. Taken seriously, it can only be a Ken Kalfus production. After merely three books, Kalfus has carved out a niche for himself as a theologian of Sovietism, an explorer of obscure niches who comes neither to bury Communism nor to praise it, but to excavate, consider, and celebrate its human dimensions. His story in The Commissariat of Enlightenment covers the period from Tolstoy's death through the 1920s consolidation of the revolution (in which the titular Commissariat, an actual Soviet organ, strives doggedly to sell the people an ideological benefits package). The novel culminates with a farcically chilling battle over the soon-to-be-corpse of Lenin--who, as we all know, ended up serving the Soviets as a relic of atheism for seven decades.

Once again, Kalfus has searched out a seam and mined it thoroughly. He tells an important story with poise, muscle, and light-footed wit. His probes at the boundary of probability, such as one 1910 reporter's suggestion that Tolstoy-endorsed consumer goods ("children's schoolbags, a motorcar rally...perhaps a European-class hotel in Moscow, perhaps a line of home shoe-making implements") would fly off the shelves, work as both anachronistic hoot and cautionary tale.

I love this author's intellectual ambitions, especially his concern for what used to be called Big Ideas. He takes on such concepts calmly and without undue strain, then proceeds to dramatize them originally and intelligently. In this book, he's after, among other things, the fundamental symmetries between religion and Communism, the surpassing resilience of belief in the most inhospitable climates, and even that old yawner about what makes for good art. More than that, I admire the humane breadth of Kalfus's curiosity; he searches out stories that deserve to be told, that roil with need, aspiration, fantasy. One never gets the sense of an author condescending to his material, or exerting the kind of lordly supremacy over his characters that one may find in, say, the work of Jonathan Franzen. Even when the march of events conspires to trample his creations ("Get out of the way, bitch, or history will run you over," Stalin snarls at Lenin's widow at the novel's climax), Kalfus preserves a fundamental margin of decency. His characters retain their dignity and capacity for belief.

And yet often Kalfus's fiction expresses all the energy and surprise of a Soviet election. Despite their bloody surroundings, his characters somehow never seem to escape their own fictionality and generate a pulse; they are somehow still ideas, notions about how people might behave and how they might think. Even Stalin, for all his blunt, roguish threat, comes off as another set of theories about art and belief rather than, well, Stalin. He is neither reimagined nor recreated, just another character with some concepts about how things should be. Only in the last chapter, which contains the entire 20th century as viewed by an embalmed and frustrated Lenin, does Kalfus lend sufficient flesh to the bones of his thoughts.

 

For a vivid stroll through the rubble, try Wendell Steavenson's bleary, languidly alcoholic account of several years spent in late-'90s Georgia, Stories I Stole. What sets this memoir apart is Steavenson's almost Chekhovian curiosity about the quality of the lives that surround her. She is interested in people--writers, KGB agents, entrepreneurs, housewives, villagers, apparatchiks, gunmen--not as exemplars of some larger truth, but as friends and neighbors who display a fascinating variety of adaptations to instability (ethnic cleansing was chronic, electricity random at best). Moreover, she gets out of the house: She spends a birthday sleeping in the master suite of Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev's never-used dacha, covers Eduard Shevardnadze's presidential "campaign" (complicity, farce, or assignation might be a better term, her friends suggest), observes rituals in remote villages, and even ventures into Chechnya for a brief, unnerving visit with an avuncular warlord.

Steavenson excels at the very regional pastime of soaking up the temperament: "I was voluntarily sipping Borjomi, salty Georgian mineral water, hating the Russians and sitting about doing nothing. Perhaps I was becoming a Georgian." Yet she never quite goes native. While I would be excited to see some Westerner assert the restorative country-folk wisdom of a small Azerbaijani village, this is not that book. "The corridor smelt of eternal communism: bread and piss," she notes of one entirely typical office building.

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