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What Isn’t To Be Done?, or Take the Money and Run
Yuz Aleshkovsky Kenguru (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1981)
Yuz Aleskovsky, Kangaroo, translated from the Russian by Tamara Glenny
(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986/reprinted by Normal, Illionis:
Dalkey Archive Press, 1999).
When Yuz Aleshkovsky’s Kangaroo was first published in English, a review in the New York Times described it as having “the stunning impact of a Candide, a Schweik, a 1984.” Indeed the work may share many qualities with these famous fictions, but Kangaroo’s hero, Fan Fanych (alias Katzenelengogen, von Patoff, Ekrantz, Petyanchikov, alias Etcetera!”) shares little of the determined innocence and naïf belief of either Voltaire’s Candide or Hašek’s Schweik. From the 1949 commencement of his story—which the narrator admits is not really a beginning but a continuation of his ongoing battle with Russian bureaucracy—to its Khrushchev-era ending, Fan Fanych is portrayed as a man well aware of the intricate insanities of a world to which he has resigned himself, perhaps, but is also able to magnificently manipulate. It is just this ability to twist an already twisted system to meet simultaneously his and its needs that animates the absurd humor of the book.
Having escaped a previous charge by the state, Aleshkovsky’s “hero’s” life has been put on hold, so to speak, by KGB officer Kidalla so that he may be charged later with a far more significant crime. Like Schweik, Fan Fanych is locked away in a kind of nuthouse—but his KGB lockup is no dreary cell, but, as the collaborating prisoner has demanded, a comfortably decorated bedroom with numerous Soviet photographs of great heroes and significant events covering its walls (photographs which, within the paranoia of the situation, seem to be daily altered or switched). The narrator insists that he determine his own crime—choosing from the KGB files the most outrageous charge he can find, a “vicious rape and murder of an aged kangaroo in the Moscow zoo on a night between July 14, 1789 and January 9, 1905,” in the hope, perhaps, that its very implausibility will save him from imprisonment or death. When he is told that the crime was created by computer, he and the reader recognize almost immediately that the authorities will now have to go out of their way to prove him guilty, if only to protect their commitment to the new—if slightly flawed—technology.
What follows is a long series of loony events including an attempt to indoctrinate him through a scholar on the subject of marsupials—a elderly male virgin to whom Fan Fanych introduces to the joys of the opposite sex; a foray into the psychological transformation of the prisoner from human being to kangaroo—which the “hero” undermines by acting out the expectations of the scientists; a presentation of a trial featuring a “documentary” film of the alleged criminal events—which the accused scripted and in which he plays the role of the murderer; and an experiment in the effects of long term space travel, where the subject is told that he is traveling to another planet in the period of a few days actually occurring over a period of weeks and months—a mystery our narrator uncovers when he finds that they have forgotten to cut one of his nails.
These events, if absurdly hilarious, do not permit us laughter, however, because of the rants and raves of the narrator, which, in his philosophically inclined leaps of language, nearly takes our breath away at the very moment of explosive relief.
You have no idea how cruel and dense a lot of people of good
will can be, Kolya. They didn’t waste a second worrying whether
I was guilty or not. About ninety percent simply said my legs
ought to be torn off my body. The remaining ten percent thought
up original tortures, but only so I’d have to scream with pain for
a good long time. Not one of them bright enough to suggest
eternal pain and torture. I guess men always envy anyone any
kind of eternal existence, even an agonizing one. The complex
people—writers, artists, export managers, journalist, the rest
of the dreck—every one of them proposed pouring vodka down
me from morning till night without every letting me get over my
hangover, until my heart just stopped. A horrible death, sure,
but it needs complex people to think it up.
In the end, Fan Fanych outwits himself as the Soviet authorities grant him his wish to be imprisoned with “notable” criminals, and he is locked away in a distantly located, dark hell-hole with former revolutionaries such as Chernyshevsky (author of the influential novel What Is to Be Done?), who in their continued support of the socialist cause, see even their own imprisonment as a betterment of Soviet ideals: “The sooner you get in, the sooner you get out!” The “hero” finds a way to better his life in prison by developing a “third eye,” with which he more easily spots the rats he and the other prisoners necessarily must destroy.
Unlike the more innocent and “feeble-minded” Candide and Schweik, moreover, Fanych, in part because of his crafty machinations, is quite an unappealing hero, particularly in his role as pickpocket (he pickpockets Hitler’s wallet), determining, so the narrator admits (and reveals), Hitler’s burning of the Reichstag which leads to the Fürher’s Socialist party’s rise to power. His vagrancy and self-protectiveness accounts also for his remaining mute about Stalin’s secret plans (and increasing insanity brought on, in part, as he describes, by the dictator’s mortal combat with his right foot) at Yalta. Fanych, we recognize, is a survivor precisely because he is no innocent fool. The world into which he is finally released, accordingly, is radically different from the old only in the fact that it has wiped away all traces of a past that it is now free to repeat.
Indeed, Aleshkovsky’s fiction ends even in a reward for his embattled narrator for participation in the government’s labyrinthine evil plots; he is awarded £ 200,000 sterling for being “the first man of any nationality to rape and viciously murder a kangaroo” by a Australian millionaire suffering from kangaroophobia! Inevitably the government finds a way to strip him of most of his financial award. And just as inevitably, I suspect, we discern that in Fanych’s final toast to “Freedom” his tongue (be it Fanych’s or Aleshkovsky’s) is still planted firmly in cheek. In a country which, according to the narrator, has massacred sixty million guys just to open up Beriozka stores, there is no garden left to cultivate. In such a morally bankrupt land, Fanych’s choice obviously is the only one: take “the money and run.”
Given the current situation in the new “freer” Russia—where the mafia and other men and women of greed siphon on much of the economy—Aleshkovsky’s bitterly satiric tale might almost be seen, from hindsight, as a prophetic cry in the wilderness.
Los Angeles, July 6, 2006
Copyright ©2006 by Douglas Messerli.