Vladimir Voinovich: Претендент на престол (Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin)
At the end of Жизнь и необычайные приключения солдата Ивана Чонкина (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin), Chonkin had been captured and imprisoned by the Soviets, after the fiasco of the attempt by a platoon to capture him, thinking he was a subversive. This book opens up with Chonkin in prison but surviving quite well, unaware what he is about to unleash. What he is about to unleash, unwittingly, is not only a major impact on the lives of certain individuals but also a complete change to the outcome of the war. I say that all these events happen despite Chonkin who remains, for virtually all of the book, in prison. In the previous book, he had started a relationship with Nyura. She still loves him and is determined to find out what happened and to get him released, knowing full well that he is a brave Soviet soldier and not a subversive. She makes the rounds of various officials and others to plead for his release but to no avail. Or, rather, she thinks that it is to no avail. But, unbeknownst to her, her pleadings do seem to have an effect on some of the people. For example, the newspaper editor, a devoted journalist and devoted Communist, spends all his life at the newspaper, writing and rewriting every story, so much so that he never seems to go home. Indeed, he thinks his son is three and a half years old when, in fact, he is seventeen and has just been sent to the front. Hearing Nyura’s pleadings, he thinks about his family and decides to go home. He cannot remember where he lives and, when he gets home, barely recognises his wife, though he has brought a present for his three and a half year old son.
However, much of the novel continues Voinovich’s witty but aggressive satire of the Soviet system. We continue to see the massive inefficiency of the system, even while seeing that some of the Soviet officials have some heart. We also see the massive corruption. Soviet officials are arrested and then unarrested. Spies and plots are invented everywhere and magnified. Anyone who is even vaguely competent is pushed aside. From being a mild subversive, Chonkin is built up to be the leader of a massive German-Royalist plot. He is mistakenly take to be a descendant of Prince Golitsyn and part of a massive Royalist/White plot. The Soviets learn that there is a German spy called Hans (who may or may not exist) and Chonkin is soon said to be associated with Hans. Hans has to be found and found he is even though it is clear to us that the guilty party is not the real Hans if, indeed, the real Hans does exist. All of this gets first to Beria and then to Stalin, both of whom are ruthlessly satirised. Stalin’s involvement only makes matters more complicated. But it does not stop there, as Hitler also learns about Chonkin-Golitsyn and he gets involved. Things look very grim for Chonkin as he seems certain to be tried and executed.
The joy of this book, as with its predecessor, is, of course, Voinovich’s satire of the Soviet system, the Soviet man (and woman), the Soviet military and Stalin and Beria, all of whom are ruthlessly mocked for all their foibles, real and imagined. If there is a right way of doing things and a wrong way of doing them, the Soviets will choose the third, very stupid way. Of course, all too many of the people just want to survive, get drunk and get laid and do not care about the Soviet system. Voinovich, of course, mocks the official pronouncements and compares them with reality. He also mocks the cover-ups, such as the funeral of the”hero” of the unsuccessful attack on Voinovich, whose bones turn out to be obviously those of a horse. Indeed, there is little that he does not mock. Only Nyura, devoted common-law wife of Chonkin and hard work comes out of it relatively unscathed.
First published 1979 by YMCA-Press, Paris
First English translation Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1981