Emigr'e Kaletski tells of creative escapes from Soviet repression
The wave of Soviet emigration to the United States in the 1970s has already produced its share of success stories, but none so peculiar as that of Alexander Kaletski, author of the recently published novel ``Metro'' (Viking). The book, subtitled ``A Novel of the Moscow Under- ground,'' is a wild, high-speed chase through a Soviet Union populated by crooked bureaucrats, scheming black marketeers, young people desperately seeking fun, and a silent majority of hopeless alcoholics. It's a different look at the USSR -- part farce, part slapstick, part black comedy -- written by an author whose life and career have been every bit as quirky as his first novel. ``Nobody has ever written like this about the craziness of Soviet life,'' Kaletski said in an interview, ``and this wild kind of fun that people try to find in a restricted society.''
``Fun'' may seem a bit mild to American readers, who will find in ``Metro'' some of the wildest parties since Petronius chronicled the excesses of Nero's Rome. The vodka flows, the expansive Russian soul expands even further, and spectacles unfold that make the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' ``A Night at the Opera'' look like a measured quadrille. Kaletski insists that the merrymaking in his book is in fact a toned-down version of the real thing.
Although Kaletski treats the drinking and alcoholism in ``Metro'' with comic exuberance, he is quick to point to the sad underlying reality: a crushingly oppressive society in which creativity is checked at every turn. ``What I realized in living in the Soviet Union is that if you are not going to be a hero and fight the system, you are repressed, in the sense that you can't do what you want. It's as simple as that. And there is this constant fear, because anytime you want to do anything your own way, i t's illegal. And little by little it really depresses you. And people try to get out of it by these wild parties.''
For Kaletski, repression meant a stifling of artistic and -- inevitably -- political expression. The son of well-placed and dedicated Communists, he belonged to a privileged stratum of Soviet society. But early on, he showed signs of restlessness. In college he dropped out of a weapons-engineering program and entered acting school in Moscow, then went on to star in numerous films and television shows. He is well known in the USSR for the role of gymnast Olga Korbut's boyfriend in her film biography. He
does, in fact, look like an idealized version of the Soviet ``boy next door'': strikingly handsome, with dark eyes, classic features, and an earnest manner. The hair is salt-and-pepper now, but it's not hard to imagine him as a teen-age heartthrob.
Kaletski also composed and sang political protest songs, accompanying himself on guitar, and began to develop a following in Moscow performing in basements and apartments. At first he was able to tone down the political content, but natural impetuosity led him to push a little too far. ``When you appear before a lot of people at an official concert,'' he said, ``you can just sing a couple of harmless songs and hold back. But not before 20 people. I would sing the more dangerous songs, and I would never know whether someone would inform on me. So it became very risky.''
Kaletski, determined to do things his own way, decided to emigrate, and thereby hangs a tale. To emigrate from the USSR one must be Jewish; Kaletski, however, is not -- a fact that may come as a surprise to Soviet emigration officials. In a ruse described in ``Metro,'' he arranged for letters to be sent to him from nonexistent relatives in Israel. At the same time, he fabricated a genealogy that would make him Jewish, yet frustrate attempts at verification. The plan worked, and in 1975 Kaletski found hi mself on an airplane out of the Soviet Union.
Upon arriving in the United States, with no friends and no knowledge of English, he continued singing, fully expecting to make a career of it. ``I was so naive,'' he said. ``I couldn't figure out why I wasn't a big hit on the radio and making a name for myself.''
If singing did not lead to stardom, it did land him an appearance on the Merv Griffin show, where the talk-show host encouraged him to write ``Metro.'' ``It's funny, you know,'' Kaletski laughed, ``because at that time I didn't know who Merv Griffin was, who Johnny Carson was -- it was just a mystery. So I talked with Merv in fractured English, and he said that with all my experiences I should write a book. So I did it. I was so confident, I thought, `I will write it in two years and it will be a great
Working from notes smuggled out of the USSR on white cotton cloth, Kaletski found his two years stretching into seven as he wrote the novel in Russian, translated it into English, rewrote it, and then began looking for a publisher. But he does not regret the delay: ``It was the right amount of time to wait. My English was completely different when I finished the book. The final product was much better than it was originally.''
With ``Metro'' (reviewed on these pages May 20) safely launched, Kaletski is already at work on a sequel that will trace his hero's fortunes in America. The book already promises to be substantially longer than the rather hefty ``Metro,'' an indication perhaps that Kaletski's satiric eye has managed to uncover an absurdity or two in American society.