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Is There Literary Life After Samizdat?

LOOKING back on the 1980s in publishing, I note two trends. In the US, megabucks continue to call the tune. Since '84, seven major US publishers have been taken over, four by foreign companies. Publishers pay bigger advances to superstars like Stephen King, using up most of the money in the process and making it difficult to publish good books with modest markets. Many small houses discontinued publishing fiction. On the other hand, in Latin America, Central Europe, and the Soviet Union, writers have gained new prominence. In Peru, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is making a strong bid for the presidency. In Czechoslovakia, playwright Vaclav Havel has emerged as a leader of his country.

In hindsight, one could have seen it coming. When Alexandr Solzhenitsyn left the Soviet Union in 1973, he made it clear he was still a ``Russian.'' His monumental novels about the birth of communism had a huge impact on European Marxists. Today, few in the West call themselves Marxists, or even ``neo-Marxists.''

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But it wasn't until this year that President Gorbachev faced his Solzhenitsyn problem. Solzhenitsyn had been accepted, though for different reasons, by both the left and the right in his country. For awhile Gorbachev resisted the publication, for the first time in a legitimate periodical, of ``The Gulag Archipelago,'' Solzhenitsyn's story of the treatment of prisoners of conscience under Stalin and after. It was the logic of events and of glasnost, and the arguments of Solzhenitsyn's editor at Novy Mir, that got through to Gorbachev. In recent months, installments of ``The Gulag'' have appeared in Moscow.

Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet camps and prisons for human rights activities and was deported in 1986, has argued that the dissidents created perestroika.

Sharansky's Soviet literary editor predicts 1990 will be the year of Solzhenitsyn. Soviet citizens have already read much of Solzhenitsyn in books produced by the underground samizdat press. This samizdat culture has been brilliantly described by the Hungarian Miklos Harazsti in his book ``The Velvet Prison'' (1987). Mr. Harazsti explains how writers under socialism learned to write between the lines. ``The space between the lines is proportionate to the widening of the state's social base,'' he says.

Now that the communists no longer control the social base in many Soviet-bloc countries, the samizdat culture is disappearing. Legitimization has erased the need for underground networking between publishers and writers and the fraternal associations based on concern for publishing the truth. The special anxieties that drive a novel like Milan Kundera's ``The Incredible Lightness of Being'' have been replaced by new responsibilities.

These responsibilities will be born by the likes of Vaclav Havel. Havel has described his personal turning from ideology in his prison letters. Published in the US as ``Letters to Olga'' (1988), Havel opposes social planning and embraces a posture of openness toward what he calls Being. This quasi-religious attitude toward life gave him strength and humor in prison, and courage on the outside. Will it seem less compelling when Havel is tempted by political power?

Will the '90s be good for art? Who can say? Censorship and neglect has brought inspiration - so can freedom. In the '80s, the original voice of the writer has sometimes been heard over the noise of mass communications.

Bits of the old world linger. When the Ayatollah put a price on the head of the author of ``The Satanic Verses,'' the writer became an instant hero. Salmon Rushdie is still in hiding, though a paperback edition of his book is due in January. The publishers are assured of profit as well as protest.

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