By Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky); translated by Richard Lourie
364 pages, $22.95
THIS BOOK IS as essential an antidote for what has ailed Russia as technology and food. Finished in 1983, "Goodnight!" has only now reached us in English translation. It is, therefore, a haunting reminder of the pre-glasnost era.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of Stalinism is that it continued so long after his death -- until this year, you might say.
The infamous "Thaw" in the '50s made people hope it was over then. But one of the saddest chapters of all was written when writers Andrei Sinyavsky and his friend Yuli Daniel were arrested, humiliated and imprisoned for publishing works that were not in the accepted "Social Realistic" manner.
This book takes its place beside the other great works about living in fear. Like Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," Grossman's "Life and Fate," Ahkmatova's "Requiem" and others, it is about the unique schizophrenia that tyranny causes.
Stalin still haunts Russia and the world. He has perhaps had more effect on the world psyche than Hitler, Lenin and Mao. A failed writer himself, he took a special joy in tormenting artists.
Nadezdah Mandelstam has told the horrifying story of Osip Mandelstam's early death in a prison camp and how she carried the only copies of his banned poems until it was safe to write them down again.
Pasternak received sinister, enigmatic, almost certainly drunken phone calls from Stalin. Four months later, Pasternak expected the knock on the door.
In this country, Sinyavsky's most famous work is "A Voice From the Chorus," a collection of letters he sent home from prison, with a peculiar tone -- exhausted, yet not resigned. But "Goodnight!" is a completely realized work. Without repressing the fear, the immense betrayals -- some of them his own -- and the waste, Sinyavsky manages to create an organic five-part masterpiece.
"Goodnight!" is filled with facts and observations from a ruined life. Time moves forward and backward. Traditional experiences, the adventures of youth, the focusing of marriage, the joys and sorrows of parenthood, the slow blossoming of a career, no longer make sense.
Sinyavsky juxtaposes this with fragments he wrote during this period. The combined effect is haunting.
One of the keys to Sinyavsky's success is pointed out in the excellent introduction by his translator. Despite the depressing nature of the book, the tone is never bitter. Sarcasm and bitterness would destroy the visionary quality that is the only weapon Sinyavsky has against the memory of Stalin.
The book begins with Sinyavsky's arrest in Moscow and ends with him as a youth looking at the stars, remembering nothing and breathing the night air.
Each section deals with conflicts that he resolves in a final, lyrical flight. The imagination is capable of synthesizing anything.
The first section deals with his double personality, formed by the repressions of Stalinist censorship. It is the exact moment when Sinyavsky was arrested. Tertz tells thestory like some angel out of the film "Wings of Desire." Tertz is the name Sinyavsky used when he sent his novel to be published in France. Tertz is completely unlike the person Sinyavsky imagined himself to be. Tertz takes on his own life.
The next section takes us to prison. The setting is the rooms where prisoners are allowed to live for a few days with their families once a year. In this unlikely setting, he presents magnificent passages on love and beauty.
The central section deals with the memory of his father, who was sent to prison in a senseless paranoid purge by Stalin. The son suppresses his own prison experience while he makes peace with his parent's generation. This is one of the best statements this reader has seen of that moment when the revolution of youth realizes it is part of a larger thing that must not be lost: tradition. The tragic pride of Soviet Russia is that it thought it could somehow sidestep this tradition.
The next chapter, called with great good humor "Dangerous Liaisons," is even more amazing because it somehow connects beauty and the beast -- women and Stalin, but not in the tacky Hollywood style or even in the slightly immoral manner of an intellectual artist like Kundera.
Sinyavsky is turning Stalin's era into a myth, without, of course, glamorizing it or hiding its horror. It was Sinyavsky's era, too.
The last chapter is a complete transcendence. He rids himself of his self-conscious vanity, his "shell." He learns what all great mysteries teach: that what we think is our disaster is our triumph. He actually gets to the point where he feels lucky to have lived his history.
The book leaves us in an ecstatic state, "remembering nothing, only the air . . . "