What is the Western reader today to make of Russian literature? Because of the oppressive political climate, it is practically impossible to consider any new work emerging from Russia without considering its relationship to the party line. Is the writer a dissident or an aparatchik? Is there any heavily disguised irony? Over all the stern figure of Solzhenitsyn frowns down in constant moral outrage, and any work that is less than political is considered frivolous or diversionary. The writer himself is burdened by the sad politics, and the reader too often sags.
In this context, this new novel by Siberian writer Valentin Rasputin is not only welcome but remarkable. "Farewell to Matyora" is the story of the last days of a group of villagers on Matyora, an island community on the Angara River that is to be flooded for a hydroelectric dam. The villagers, despite their differences, band together for one last harvest before they will have to go inland to the new community the authorities have erected.
Not all the villagers are grieved that Matyora is to go under. Klavka, a young girl, remarks to her elders, "A new life has come everywhere, but you, you're like dung beetles clutching the old, looking for some sweetness in it." Many other young and middle-aged villagers accept the inevitable stolidly and take off for the "apiary" apartments of the settlements -- with their closets, store-bought bread, treeless yards.
But, not surprisingly, it is to the old that change is most cruel. When Darya, an 80-year-old widow, gathers the stagglers and the reluctant around her samovar, they rehearse their lives as they look with fresh eyes on the homes and fields they will lose. To Darya, Matyora is the "familiar cozy, tested world" in which conscience is very important. Change is a threat: "The new settlement was no nearer or dearer to her heart than, say, America, where they said people, in order not to wear out their feet, walked on their hands." Darya finds the new world cold and heartless -- she believes men have souls and that the meaning of life is service.
Matyora itself, in its concentration on church and hearth, seems almost medieval, not so much anti-Soviet as anti-modern. Its seasonal rhythms, which we follow one last time, are those of a peasant world much removed from modern hustle and doctrinaire concerns.
The major battle, which Darya leads, is to save the cemetery so that the dead will not float up in the artificial lake and disturb future tourists. But the villagers merely delay the inevitable. They, the anonymous outside forces, have decreed what the villagers cannot prevent.
Certainly, one could make political hay of this situation -- see in the flooding of Matyora the cruel Soviet fist hammering helpess villagers. But what is remarkable is that Rasputin insists on concentrating on the human dilemma, what William Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself, and thus reaffirms a vision of Mother Russia that transcends stric politics.
As Darya observes, "The person without memory is without life." Rasputin is determined not only to remember, but to chronicle; and, in his obvious love for the land itself, Rasputin may suggest the mystical conservatism of Solzhenitsyn. but Rasputin's observations are more particular, more sensual: "The air was filled with the scent of the herbs, the scent of the forest, separate scents for leaves and for needles, every bush had its own scent; the lumber of the houses, the cattle -- it smelled of life, of the manure pile behind the barn, of cucumber soup, of red charcoal from the smithy. . . ." It is a live green world, an Eden of sorts, that is destroyed.
"Farwell To Matyora" is a book crafted more in sadness than in outrage -- a lament for a lost world in which man was connected to the earth through his own arm and hoe rather than perched unfeelingly on top of machines. Because it is also a lament for the loss of man's soul and a sense of daily meaning, it suggests a deeper complaint than politics can encompass.
Rasputin is the kind of wrter of whom Chekhov, that most sensible of all Russian writers, would have approved -- a man linked to the soil through its people, apolitical without being nihilistic, profoundly humane.