A Liberating Anger : EVERY HUNTER WANTS TO KNOW: A Leningrad Life, <i> By Mikhail Iossel (W. W. Norton: $23.95; 244 pp.)</i>
When Yevgeny Litovtsev emigrates from the Soviet Union--after living six years in the non-person status of somebody unpatriotic enough to apply for an exit visa--he brings with him a manuscript of stories about his childhood in Leningrad and Moscow.
They are bad stories, he tells us, huddled in the room in Boston he hates being in, and dreads to leave because everybody outside speaks English. He detests them because they deal with his life. “I was sick and tired of my life,” he says.
Yevgeny, or Zheka, is the fictional alter ego of Mikhail Iossel, a Soviet Jew who came to the United States in 1986. Iossel has mastered his adoptive language so well that his English is not only impeccable but his own. It possesses an unmistakable voice: abrupt, suggestive and bleak.
The stories in “Every Hunter Wants to Know” are Zheka’s stories, the ones he is sick and tired of. Through them, Iossel has succeeded in something difficult to do and, sometimes, to read. He portrays the repeated fragmentation and humiliation of sensibility that went with growing up as a free spirit--in particular, an artistic free spirit--under the slapdash oppressiveness of the Brezhnev years.
Humiliation fosters humiliated anger, and such anger can be ugly. Iossel makes no attempt to soften his memories, or to render them palatable. Anger bound him even as it kept him free. He turns it on himself and his friends, as well as on the stultifying and mean-minded structures of his society.
We can get sick of the child Zheka, a self-righteous, 100% little party-liner, and of the sulky, abrasive 22-year-old refusenik. If we read on, though, we see that Iossel has deliberately taken the harder route to portray a profoundly touching childhood, a baffled adolescence and an awkwardly rebellious young manhood. The harshness of Soviet life--which oppressed by its pettiness even more than by its rigor--produced a corresponding rancor of tone in the young artist.
It is a rancor akin to the shouting matches among neighbors cramped into their 1 1/2-room Moscow apartments and sharing a kitchen; akin to the scowling indifference of the petty bureaucrats and salespersons. Iossel’s stories not only illuminate the shouting and the indifference, they also link these revealingly to the need to preserve a square inch of private authority in a corrupt and affronting public world.
The affront, as well as the corruption, touches everyone, from the privileged official down to the refusenik. In “A Room for Two,” Zheka’s girlfriend invites him to a luxury hotel in Tallinn. It is reserved for foreigners and bigwigs, but she works in the Foreign Exchange Department, and can do favors and receive them.
They are ghastly favors. The luxury room is a dirty garret under the hotel eaves. The girlfriend abandons Zheka in the bar to chat up her KGB friends. One of them comes over and vindictively seizes Zheka’s passport. He has to wait in the garret while the girlfriend persuades the KGB man--we imagine what that means--to return it. To climb on the Soviet ladder is simply to be kicked by a higher-placed foot.
“Wings,” set on a long-distance train, is a vivid panorama of such kicks and of all their complex gradations. Zheka and his university friends are children of professionals and thus belong to a middling privileged class. (This is before his exit application sent him to the bottom.) They have summer jobs as assistant conductors. They travel a lot, party a lot, do a tiny bit of work, and incur the burning resentment of the chief conductor, a working-class woman jealous of her position.
She finds Zheka’s diary and threatens to turn it over to the police. He and his friends, meanwhile, have been buttering up a plainclothes KGB man. They drink and joke with him; despite his “power” he is susceptible to their “privilege"--who knows what higher-ups their parents know?--and flattered. To impress them, he snatches the diary back from the conductor. She throws him off the train. At the next stop, she is arrested.
It is a fascinating picture of a time when the old authorities--state, party, police--are beginning to waver before the rise of technocrats and wheeler-dealers, and their lordling kids.
It was different if you were a refusenik, of course. In a prodigious Gogol-like moment, Zheka finds himself shadowed by a plainclothesman into a steam bath. Both undress, and Zheka remarks acidly that he has never seen a plainclothesman without clothes. “Don’t be naive,” the policeman says. “Of course you have.”
The early stories are the most painful. At 6, Zheka is an over-achieving brat. In America, he might have recited 20 years of pitching records, while mastering Fortran. Here, he swots up party slogans--"Death to Tshombe!"--while devouring the Soviet Encyclopedia.
On a visit to Lenin’s tomb with his devout Old Bolshevik grandfather, he meanly humiliates the old man before an acquaintance. The acquaintance is a wartime comrade who has become a high official; Zheka blurts out that his grandfather has failed to defend Lenin at the dinner table when his son--Zheka’s father--makes fun of him. That night, the child dreams that Lenin visits him and that he has the opportunity to entertain the great man with a sung rendition of “Moscow Nights.”
It is horrendous and pitiable. Iossel’s horror can turn icy, and the ice freezes some of the stories, notably the last one, where he is an exile adrift and querulous in Boston. Break through the ice, though, and in pages of anger, irony and sorrow, we glimpse human forms exerting themselves in their straitjacket.
The title story takes the child Zheka from his dreams of communist glory--he envies Laika, the dog sent up on an early Soviet space mission; he, too, would like to be dead and famous--and sends him mushroom-hunting with his grandmother.
The grandmother uses a manual entitled “Gribnik’s Sputnik.” The first word means mushroom-picker, the second means companion; it was also the name of the pioneering spacecraft that carried Yuri Gagarin, and won the Kremlin a prodigious propaganda victory.
In those two words, the two Russias that nearly tore the child apart are joined: that of the Earth gods, and that of the tin ones.