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Edith Clowes’ Russian Experimental Fiction: Resisting Ideology After Utopia is a timely book whose appearance more or less coincided with the collapse of a state whose goal was the realization of the Marxist/ Leninist utopian dream. Even as that dream began to fall away as early as the late 1930s it continued to be extolled in the official utopian literature that was routinely ground out to celebrate a dream that even those who were its ideologues failed to believe in. Not surprisingly, throughout seventy-four years of Soviet rule that elusive utopian dream only intensified in the official literature as social repression became more absolute. In the post-Stalin years, however, non-official Soviet writers responded to the radiant utopian vision by creating a utopian vision of their own, one which, as Clowes rightly observes, paved the way for the acceptability of the glasnost reforms under Gorbachev. Clowes’ book deals with the attempts by certain post-Stalinist writers, namely Vladimir Voinovich, Abram Terts/Sinyavsky, Venedikt Erofeev, Alexander Zinoviev, Vasily Aksenov, and Liudmila Petrushevskaia to negotiate these notions of utopia by creating meta-utopian fictions which interrogate traditional notions found in anti-or dystopian works.
Clowes devotes the initial chapter of her book to drawing distinctions between meta-utopian and anti or dystopian fictions. She sees Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights, Voinovich’s Moscow 2042 or Terts’s Liubimov, for example, as differing from their anti-utopian predecessors in taking a more complex view of the notion of utopia, engaging themselves not only with Soviet images of utopia but with the nature of all utopias. Further, she looks at how meta-utopian fiction in post-Stalinist Russia, while challenging fixed aesthetic and social dogma, attempts [End Page 908] through imaginative play to go beyond the impasse of merely pointing out the failure of utopian ideology. Clowes shows how these writers take to task the traditional tendency in the Soviet Union to engage in a kind of polarized either/or thinking characteristic of Russia’s past. Her quote from a reader of Literaturnaia gazeta in Sverdlovsk who wrote in saying “Is it really possible that there are no books other than the Gospel and The Communist Manifesto, the Bible, and Das Kapital and [no other] paths for Russia [to follow] other than Bolshevism and Orthodoxy?” suggests not only the historical tendency in Russia to engage in this kind of polarized thinking but, perhaps even more importantly, the capacity of the readership even after Stalinist repression to engage themselves actively and creatively with a text.
Part II of Clowes’ study is devoted to the geography of meta-utopia in which she discusses how the writers mentioned above set out to critique both the present reailty and the imagined utopia by collapsing the borders between the two by “the carnivalesque reversal of sacred and profane.” She also examines how the very structure of these novels undermines traditional utopian thinking by playing with notions regarding the utopian “master plot,” or by retarding the action to the extent that nothing happens, or presenting the “progression” from enslavement to enlightenment as circular, bringing the characters back to where they started in the first place.
Clowes also addresses what she calls “the meta-utopian language problem” which arose out of Wittgenstein’s belief that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Soviet meta-utopian writers critique the belief held by many utopian writers that language had to be restructured and indeed reinvented to order to create a new consciousness and a new social order.
Part III of this book is devoted to the relationship between the meta-utopian writer and the reader and to issues dealing with imagination, and memory, parody of popular forms, play with closure and the utopian impulse after 1968. It is here that Clowes discusses in detail the strategies used by these authors to transcend the traditional utopian/ anti-utopian stalemate. She discusses Petrushevskaia’s “The New Robinsons,” published in 1989, as an example of a work that rewrites the traditional dystopian narrative by suggesting other...