Lemony satire on Soviet life; The Radiant Future, by Alexander Zinoviev. Translated from the Russian by Gordon Clough. New York: Random House. $13.95.
When Alexander Zinoviev's big, acclaimed volume, "The Yawning Heights," came out in the West a few years ago, it was said that he had already written another satirical novel, "The Radiant Future." Now it is here. It is not as big and probably won't be as acclaimed as its predecessor. But in its cerebral way it gives an outsider a remarkable sense of how the stultifying contradictions of Soviet society must look to a philosopher holding a university chair of logic -- which philosopher Zinoviev once did before his physical exile from Russia matched an intellectual exile evidently starting long before.
Indeed, the book repeatedly brings to mind the suspicion that anyone in the Soviet intellectual elite knows full well the intellectual hollowness of the reasonings and pronouncements uttered in support of the Soviet system. Consider the drain on thinkers attempting to use their intellects, on the one hand, and ignore or suppress them, on the other.
The sensation must be something like the bleakness conveyed in "The Radiant Future," whose title turns out to be just as ironic as "The Yawning Heights," if not so marvelously double-edged, in describing the prospects for Soviet communism. Here the fictional narrator is a philosopher angling for advancement , discerning deceptions on all sides while exemplifying deception and self- deception himself.
"Heights" satirized Russia as a mythical country with a name that, in Russian , made a vulgar pun. There is some vulgarity in "Future," too, but actual names are named, including Moscow -- and Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who appeared in the guise of Truth-teller in the earlier book. "The Radiant Future" appears as a phrase in a huge inspirational metal sign, "erected at the request of the workers," that is literally damaged and abused as the nation's hopes and ideals suffer, too.
This central symbol and a thread of narrative, involving marital as well as political betrayal, give the book claims to being a novel. But its effect is mainly that of a dialogue, a linking of mini-essays, with faceless people of different ages and conditions having their say as filtered through the narrator's not entirely objective mentality. His wife complains of "idiotic dissidents" debating freedom of individuality when "what really matters" is that "there isn't a sausage worthy of the name in the shops." In the midst of the prevailing Soviet boredom, he and the reader are always running into provocative lines like these:
"We've got too much science. . . . We would be better off with a bit more goodness about."
"It is easier to put a roof over the head of the homeless than it is to alleviate the suffering of a man who has a room of his own or even a small apartment but who knows that other people have huge luxurious apartments and country villas."
"On what does the future history of Russia depend? On something quite trivial: Will Ivanov, Petrov, Sidorov, (i.e. you, or me, or your daughter, or your son) resist (or simply protest) or won't they?"
The narrator himself comes up with a sort of Catch-22 formula that rather pleases him: "One of the fundamental tendencies of the communist way of life is the attempt to escape from the rules of that very way of life." But his small pleasure is soon destroyed. The underlying question played with by the denizens of this book is: Will anything notm be destroyed in communi sm's Radiant Future?