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Novel of Soviet underground is great bear-hug of a book

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Metro: A Novel of the Moscow Underground, by Alexander Kaletski. New York: Viking. 374 pp. $17.95. There are two undergrounds here.

The first is the literal one, the subway that dazzled Sasha, the narrator of this exuberant first novel, when he visited the capital at the age of seven and discovered the beautiful place that continues to delight him as an adult: ``Why the modernization of Russia started with the hanging of chandeliers beneath the earth I didn't know, but I did know that when I was underground, I felt free.''

The second type of underground is the Bohemian world Sasha finds himself in after leaving his home in Tula at 19 to come to study at Moscow's Theater Institute.

``We started our theatrical education at a vegetable storage house,'' relates Sasha, for this is certainly a theater institute of the absurd, where the students spend weeks unloading potatoes and peeling rotten leaves from cabbages, where the feast at the end of their freshman year is made of papier m^ach'e.

Among his new acquaintances, Sasha becomes friends with Stas, ``a blubbery giant'' who astonishes him with his skill at obtaining the impossible, a taxi and an edible chicken. Andrewlka, who works for the KGB (as a porter) mysteriously possesses the truly impossible, a two-room apartment, something that is ``everybody's dream, but by law, an individual can't occupy more than nine square meters.'' And then there is Lena, an acting student with whom Sasha falls in love.

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