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Between two worlds. A Soviet writer's visions of America

By Marcia L. DeSanctis / August 7, 1987



In Search of Melancholy Baby, by Vassily Aksyonov. New York: Random House. 227 pp. $15.95. IN the '50s, when American kids were packing into phone booths, a Soviet medical student named Vassily Aksyonov was making jazz records on X-ray plates. ``In Search of Melancholy Baby'' is the story of his arrival in the United States, his often awkward assimilation into its culture, and his not unquestioning acceptance of his new home. The book is a colorful assortment of vignettes and treatises in which the author impressionistically defines what America means to him.

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Because his fascination is so genuine, even when stating the obvious, such as ``['emigr'es] can't get over the quantity and quality of food available,'' one can excuse his infrequent generalizations. When they are used, the author is very much aware of them. Also, throughout the book are ``Sketches for a Novel to Be'' in which we see fictional, stereotyped American characters and values. We also see a glimpse of the fertile imagination of Aksyonov, the novelist.

How, then, did one of the preeminent Soviet writers of his generation end up living in the US? In 1979, he helped compile a literary anthology called ``Metropol.'' It was an effort to highlight ``contemporary writings which did not conform to established literary formulas.''

``Metropol,'' however, caused an outrage among the literary and party elite. Their wrath and the ensuing debacle eventually drove Aksyonov to exile. After 20 years as an author whose writings consistently sparked debate, his long-controversial voice was silenced in 1980. Less than a year later, he was deprived of his Soviet citizenship while in the US.

Arriving in America with a suitcase full of preconceptions has made accepting his new home difficult at times. Recalling his youth, he tells how pro-American cults existed in an era of relentless, official anti-Americanism. It was the postwar and post-Stalin Soviet Union. Aksyonov says, ``America rose from the mist as an alternative to the outdated and nauseating belief in Socialist revolution.''

Many of the observations of ``In Search of Melancholy Baby'' have their basis in and adhere to notions from his youth. Material abundance and openness are things he has expected from America.

Yet the author is at his most engaging when faced with new situations to which he often reacts with astonishment. Frequently what seems so routine that it is barely perceptible to an American is the most glaring novelty to the author.

He views with incredulity road signs that read ``CIA'' and ``Pentagon.'' He adds, ``In the Soviet Union, these words are meant to frighten little children; here they are nothing but freeway exits.'' He is amazed at the absolute openness of the borders within the US and that he can drive anywhere and, except for speeding, nobody will stop him. He wonders at the sight of a Polynesian restaurant in snowy Maine, a symbol of ethnic diversity. He can't believe that the details of presidential medical examinations are public information; he realizes that blacks in America are human beings and not merely ``the emblems of imperialistic oppression.''

After a trip to the US in 1975, Aksyonov published ``Non-Stop, Round the Clock.'' The author describes it as a ``stack of snapshots taken in haste through a rose-tinted lens.'' More than a decade later, though he easily says ``the fascinations outweigh the frustrations,'' he has refined those visions. Living here and becoming ``Americanized,'' he can see the darker sides, which might not be visible at first glance. He is also free to express his reservation and concern.

He finds that one can get a sink fixed quicker in the Soviet Union as he falls victim to apathy in the service industries. He laments the presence of rats and cockroaches in America's cities and can ask, ``How is that possible under capitalism?'' He is frustrated by what he sees as America's lack of risk taking and innovation in theater, cinema, and literature, as commercial salability is the primary concern. He is astounded by the fact that the annual baseball championships are called the ``World Series'' - when there are no foreign teams. He uses this as one example of what he cites as America's provincial disregard for the outside world.

We can see how far he has traveled since those days when he longed for the slightest fragment of American life. It is striking in his discussion about jazz. His passion for jazz is undiminished today; it is something from his ``old'' home and his past. It is ironic when he discovers that ``Jazz, which in Russia had been the epitome of America to me, has now come to epitomize my Russian youth.''

It is even more ironic for him to see that in the land where jazz was born, it is barely audible among the din of rock and roll. Recalling his youth, he says, ``Jazz was a platonic rendezvous with freedom.'' Thirty years and countless discoveries later, those thoughts are comforting as he assesses the distance between his two worlds.

Marcia L. DeSanctis is an ABC-TV producer.