Vladimir Voinovich: Жизнь и необычайные приключения солдата Ивана Чонкина (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin)
This book got Voinovich effectively banned in the Soviet Union but made his name in the West. Chonkin has been accused of being a Soviet Schweik. This may be the case. Like Schweik, Chonkin is fairly lazy, pretty incompetent and clearly not a good soldier but he does have some brains and a certain amount of cunning. Schweik has education but tries to give the impression of being stupid. Chonkin has little education but some brains.
When we first meet Chonkin he is late for parade, badly dressed and does not seem to care. In short he is the antithesis of what a good Soviet soldier should be. When a plane crashes and has to be guarded, he is selected, firstly because he is healthy (many of his comrades are sick) and secondly because he is no use for anything else. Once there, in a remote village on a collective farm, he is forgotten by his superiors, not least because World War II is about to start for the Russians, as the Germans break the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The village itself is also involved in its own problems. Most of the people seem concerned mainly about getting drunk, getting away with doing as little as possible and, definitely of least importance, sex. Some are concerned with just living. One man tries in vain to cross a potato and a tomato, with little success. Chonkin fits right in with this group. He soon meets a single woman and moves in with her. He helps her on the farm and guards the plane, while enjoying conjugal life with her.
Of course, something has to give and, due to an error, he is mistaken for a subversive and an enemy to the people and a group of men is sent to capture to him. Not only do they not succeed but Chonkin, seeing them as counter-subversives, captures them and then has them working on the farm. Further misunderstandings lead to more military action and, though Chonkin seems to come through, at the end he is captured (though the book is incomplete and the feeling is that he will survive.) However, the plot is fairly irrelevant. Voinovich takes great delight in making fun of pretty well everybody, both as individuals and as groups. The military and the collective farm system come in for particular satire but there are few targets left unscathed, including Stalin himself, leaving us with a very funny book which clearly would not endear itself to the Soviets, as most of the basic tenets of the Soviet system are savagely attacked.
First published 1975 by YMCA-Press, Paris
First English translation Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1977
Translated by Richard Lourie