Sowing the Wind by Richard Seltzer,
a review of A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov, trans. by Carl R. Proffer, Ardis, 1977
(This item first appeared in The Word Guild, August 1977, Vol. 2, Number 8, p. 17).
This new novel from Soviet Russia, Sokolov's first, is in the tradition of digressive tales with delightful irrelevancies, with the narrator (in this case an anonymous mental defective) forever commenting on and intervening in the narrative, making much of his freedom, particularly his independence from the fetters of time. A story line gradually emerges from the lyrical chain of digressions. But one remembers more the texture, individual scenes, and descriptions than this thin tale.
One character stands out from the rest -- the geographer Pavel Petrovich Norvegov. This rebellious pedagogue dies early in the book, then returns and returns again from the dead, as the narrator's mind interweaves fantasy and apparent reality. For the narrator, death isn't real or final; the local river is Lethe; and just on the other bank of the river, in a summer dacha, lives his much loved teacher who apparently died. Time, too, plays a part in these multiple resurrections; for, to the narrator, time is unpredictable and discontinuous and moves forward and backward with equal ease. But time and death, forever denied, lurk in the background, forever present, forever disturbing, regardless of the narrator's tricks of mind and memory.
The narrator collects butterflies (a la Nabokov). But the landscape he perceives is populated not just by ordinary butterflies, but also by strange and beautiful creatures, such as "winter butterflies" (cf. Salinger's banana fish) never before catalogued, or even perceived, that thrive in winter, just as Norvegov seems to thrive in death, sitting casually on the basks of Lethe.
As the title seems to imply, this book has touches of realism and satire. Although the events are forever covered with doubt (did they happen or were they dreamt up by the not so reliable narrator?), the rules, the prohibitions, and the expectations to which the characters and/or figments of the book react remain constant and real, almost as real as death. An image of country life in Russia (a far different Russia from that of Turgenev) emerges through the pattern of everyday impediments that the characters encounter and take for granted. For instance, they have to put up with long waits for common necessary items, like clothing and even cloth, forever in short supply. They wait in long lines at stores to sign up, then wait months for the goods to arrive. They have to plan ahead meticulously (rather like the poor clerk in Gogol's "Overcoat") every such purchase. But these obstacles arise not form individual poverty, but rather from the general shortages and inefficient procedures of the state-run economy.
The tone is only rarely political. More often, the satire touches on foible of human nature, and the tone is apparently lighthearted and lyrical. In the midst of a description or anecdote, the narrator suddenly picks an apparently irrelevant detail to expound and elaborate upon, leading the reader on a merry chase in and out and around the country town, the school for mental defectives, and the lives of the strange folk who live there.
But the indirect speeches of Norvegov provide a different, more serious, bitter type of satire, highlighted by the general good humor and digressive chatter. This is satire without specific objects of attack. The implication is that something is fundamentally wrong with society as it now stands, but that there is no way of putting one's finger on this or that, that there is no way that reforms here and there could make any real difference. Rather, Norvegov emphasizes with the wind and the whirlwind (almost in the style of an Old Testament prophet.)
"And if you are ever called a wind-driver, -- said Norvegov, rattling the box of matches he had found so loudly it could be heard all over the school, -- don't feel offended: that's not such a bad thing. For what do I fear in the face of eternity if today a wind ruffles my hair, freshens my face, puffs the sleeves of my shirt, blows through my packets and tears at the buttons on my jacket, but tomorrow -- destroys the unneeded old buildings, rips out oaks by the roots, stirs and swells the reservoirs and scatters the seeds of my garden all across the earth, -- what do I fear, geographer Pavel Norvegov, an honest suntanned man from suburban zone five, a modest pedagogue, but one who knows his business, whose skinny but nonetheless commanding hand turns the hollow globe made of paper-mache from morning to night! Give me time -- I'll shoe you which of us is right, some day I'll give your lazy squeaky ellipsoid such a whirl that your rivers will back up, you'll forget your false books and newspapers, your own voices, names, and ranks will make you vomit, you will forget how to read and write, you will want to babble and whisper like aspen leaves in August. An angry crosswind will blast away the names of your streets and back alleys and asinine signs, and you will want the truth. You lousy cockroach tribe! You brainless Panurgian herd, crawling with bedbugs and flies! You will want the great truth. And then I will come. I will come and bring with me the ones you have murdered and humiliated and I will say: this is your truth for you and retribution against you. From horror and sorrow the obsequious pus that pollutes the blood in your veins will turn into ice. Fear The Sender of Wind, you sovereigns of cities and dachas, cower before the breezes and crosswinds, they engender hurricanes and tornadoes. I tell you this, I, geographer of the fifth suburban zone, the man who turns the vacuous cardboard globe. And saying this, I take eternity as my witness -- isn't that right, my youthful assistants, my dear contemporaries and colleagues, isn't that right?"
A School for Fools - Sowing the Wind by Richard Seltzer
Sowing the Wind by Richard Seltzer,