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Shertlisted for the 1992 Russian Booker Prize

The book, which contains two dystopian novellas (written in 1991), indicates that, directly or indirectly, Makanin has been influenced by Evgeny Zamyatin, the author of We, a book that anticipated in great detail Brave New World and 1984. (Actually, Zamyatin's a better writer than Huxley or Orwell, who both appropriated details of We's plot.)

Zamyatin and Makanin (born 1937) also share a background in science and mathematics. Zamyatin worked for a while as a naval engineer, in fact. In the novella Escape Hatch (Лаз), the protagonist, a mathematician named Klyucharyov, travels through a tunnel from a deteriorating aboveground city, where public order hardly exists, to an underground community where residents live comfortably and safely but seem on the edge of some crisis. The Long Road Ahead (Долог наш путь), set in a future Utopia, finds a young engineer traveling from Moscow to an isolated food-manufacturing plant in the steppes to install a machine he's invented.

Both works display nightmarish, Kafkaesque qualities. Everyone in Escape Hatch seems terrified, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In The Long Road Ahead, the inventor is horrified to find that the plant he's visiting does not manufacture synthetic meat but actually slaughters cows, something considered barbaric in his society.

The inventor doesn't know what to do about the situation. He can't stay at the plant, but he's is afraid to leave, because, having been introduced to evil, he'd be a corrupting influence in Moscow. Eventually, he camps outside the plant on the steppe, keeping a bonfire going in hopes that a helicopter will see him and give him transportation to somewhere. Soon, he discovers that there are many people keeping similar bonfires going and calmly waiting--for what they do not know.

The Long Road Ahead has a story-within-a story construction. It turns out that the tale of the engineer has been made up by a narrator who appears in the middle of the novella and explains that he's composed it for his friend, Ilya Ivanovich, a schizophrenic who cannot bear to witness any living thing suffer. As the novella progresses, Makanin alternates between the two narratives, and the characters and events in each influence the other.

In these novellas, Makanin obviously draws on the experience of Soviet/Russian citizens now and in the recent past; the remote meat-producing plant, for example, could correspond to a prison in the Gulag archipelago. Makanin's works are allegorical, and it's difficult to discern where he stands on specific issues--possibly because he wants to provoke readers into asking questions rather than providing them with answers.

Makanin's protagonists are isolated and struggling with social, psychological, spiritual and political problems. Because he depicts their struggles so believably and poignantly, even in the context of fantastic plots, Makanin will appeal to a wide variety of readers. His stories can be dealt with on a number of levels. Even if you're not into speculating about the mysteries of the cosmos they may grab you, because Makanin, in addition to his erudition, is a top-notch storyteller.

(Harvey Pekar, a review for metroactove)

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