Soviet farce with twist of lemon; Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, by Vladimir Voinovich. Translated by Richard Lourie. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.
"How did such an idiotic life come about?" This question, posed by a character in Vladimir Voinovich's "Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin," could serve as the epigraph for this biting satire of Soviet society. Voinovich, whose previous book, "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin," was published to critical acclaim in 1977, has brought back his endearing hero and subjected him once again to the vicissitudes of Soviet life.
In this latest work, Chonkin, a simple peasant, is arrested on the pretext of desertion from the Soviet Army during World War II. From the moment of his incarceration, Chonkin's encounters with government officials illustrate the absurdity of Soviet protocol. His plight is compounded by the attempts of his mistress, Nyura Belyashova, an equally simple soul, to gain access to the prison and somehow communicate with the unfortunate Chonkin. Nyura's efforts lead her into the offices of numerous petty bureaucrats, each more inane than the last.
In a system where inefficiency and incompetence are the rule, both Nyura and Chonkin must face the realization that any struggle against the status quo is in vain. To make matters worse, an unfounded rumor leads officials to believe Chonkin really Prince Golitsyn, a key figure in a conspiracy, acting in collaboration with Hitler to sabotage the Soviet system and restore the monarchy. The absurd and incredible events that occur as a result are pungently delineated by Voinovich.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of this defty constructed novel is the characterization of minor Soviet officials and party members. One of the more memorable of the latter is the Ermolkin, a pitiful newspaper editor so absorbed in his work that he never leaves the office. When he finally returns home, Ermolkin discovers that his son, who he thought was a boy of 3 1/2 years, is really 17 and in the Army. Voinovich writes: If Ermolkin "were asked, he would say, and quite sincerely, that he was serving his motherland, Stalin, and the Party, but in fact, he was serving his own petty passion for crippling and maiming words until they were unrecognizable. . . ."
Throughout the novel, the narrator feels free to comment on the events he is describing. These interruptions help turn the narrator into a character. Everything is filtered through his eyes; his opinions and reactions are those of a rational being trying to make sense of a completely illogical, farcical world.
His presence makes plausible the rambling quality of the narrative, which, especially in the first half of the book, is replete with digressions. These serve to mirror the confusion and senselessness of the world being depicted -- a world in which major decisions are made and cataclysmic events occur "for no reason at all."
The somber truth of the massive incompetence and inhumanity of which the Soviet regime is capable lies beneath the surface humor and wit of "Pretender to the Throne." Pervading the novel is the axion that power corrupts, for in Voinovich's vision, the powerless masses are helpless victims, while a powerful elite controls the destinies of all. The question of how "such an idiotic life" came to be -- whether through the fault of the people or of the system -- remains unanswered in this excellent book, and we are left pondering the paradox that, "on the one hand, people formed the system, but on the other, the system was composed of people."