Sampling recent Soviet and Eastern-bloc literature
Reading recent English translations of Russian literature, I recalled that several of the best Russian writers are now living in the West. For example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lev Kopelev, and Vladimir Voinovich are in the United States; Andrei Sinyavsky lives in France. This might account for the fact that these works seem to be of lesser quality than one might expect.
But as I waded through Alexander Zinoviev's The Reality of Communism (Shocken , New York, $22.95) - his sifting of Soviet life through a weir roughly corresponding to Western social theory - I remembered that he, too, had been literally locked out of the Soviet Union while attending an academic conference in Munich in 1978. Zinoviev is a philosopher and satirist, whose novels ''The Yawning Heights'' and ''The Radiant Future'' have earned him comparisons with Swift. This work, Zinoviev's first nonfiction book to appear in English, sparkles only when it quotes his earlier fiction, some of which has yet to be translated. That, at least, gives readers something to look forward to.
A troika of Soviet novels recently published in the United States plod along the heavy course of Soviet literature. The nimblest of the lot is poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's first novel, Wild Berries (Morrow, New York, $15.95). It's an energetic, often ebullient ride through present-day Siberia, with occasional glimpses into the rearview mirror of history, where the dirty word ''gulag'' is implied but not stated. The novel's title refers directly to two young female characters, although the real fruits of the book are Yevtushenko's compassionate , robust portraits of Siberians living in a way that is larger than the expansive landscape around them. Yevtushenko might have weeded out his digressions on American rock music and deposed Chilean leader Salvador Allende, but even then it's debatable whether he would have been able to clear away the thicket he had got himself into. Ah, wilderness.
Yuri Trifonov's two novellas, Another Life/The House on the Embankment (Simon & Schuster, New York, $16.95), bring the ponderousness of 19th-century Russian prose to bear on 20th-century Soviet life. ''Another Life'' gives proof that Soviet daughters-in-law have the reportedly universal mother-in-law problem.
Maurice Friedberg, head of the University of Illinois Russian Department (and a very humorous man in his own right), introduces Fyodor Abramov's novel Two Winters and Three Summers (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, $17.95) by quoting Deming Brown, ''a leading American specialist in Soviet literature,'' to the effect that ''if (this novel) had been written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it would have been immediately translated and proclaimed a masterpiece ....'' It wasn't. Rather, it is a tale of a Soviet village that bands together to survive serious shortages of food and fuel, in part created by apparatchik mismanagement , after World War II.
Linking each of these novels is the recurrent backdrop of The War, that touchstone of Soviet glory, but not necessarily of Russian prose. The late Max Hayward, the eminent scholar and translator of Russian literature (e.g., Pasternak's ''Dr. Zhivago''), noted in ''Writers in Russia,'' a posthumous collection of his papers, that conservative Soviet critics had frowned on Trifonov's fiction because of its ''absence of 'positive heroes.' '' Hayward also points out that Abramov was one of several Soviet writers who ''tended to emphasize a more positive aspect of the countryside as a repository of traditional values which are disappearing in the towns.''
Among writers from East-bloc countries, there are several whose works are currently available here. Polish writer Marek Nowakowski's book of stories, The Canary and Other Tales of Martial Law (Dial Press, New York, $11.95), is characterized by pithiness and a documentary quality. Not so much stories as vignettes, these are glimpses of black marketeers, lines and more lines, shortages and more shortages. ''The Canary'' is recommended for those who want a slice of Polish life that is heavy on dialogue, short on description, and flat in mood. Publicity releases quote reviewers comparing Nowakowski's book with Isaac Babel's poignantly brusque sketches from revolutionary Russia, but I wonder if political sympathies have not perjured critical judgment. Nowakowski has been imprisoned since March 7, and it is not known if he received amnesty under the recent decree by the Polish regime.
Save the best books for last:
One is Czech writer Josef Skvorecky's The Engineer of Human Souls (Random House, New York, $17.95).
Skvorecky's ''magnum opus,'' to cite his friend Milan Kundera's book jacket encomium, was written in Toronto, where the author - like his main character and first-person narrator, Danny Smiricky - teaches at the university. The novelist moves through a medley of time frames: A beloved past comprising memories of flirtatious heroics in occupied Czechoslovakia plays counterpoint to the present set at the university, where Smiricky teaches American and English literature and moves among the sizable Czech emigre population in Toronto. Interspersed are letters Smiricky has received at various times from Czechs who have either stayed behind or gone elsewhere, none of them finding much to replace what they left behind in that Czechoslovakia that no longer exists, even for those who remained.
Skvorecky writes convincingly and compassionately about Czechs. But when he depicts callow American deserters and draft dodgers fleeing the Vietnam war (and thus the chance to fight communism) and imbued with textbook Marxism, he becomes tendentious.
The most interesting recent import is from East Germany: Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, by Christa Wolf (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $17.95). It is a fictional memoir of the seeress who foretold both the fall of Troy and Agamemnon's death, and whose fate it was to have no one believe her. In an accompanying essay, Wolf states that her ''real concern'' as author is ''the inner formation of the Cassandra character.'' She achieves this by revising both the ''Iliad'' and Aeschylus's ''Orestes.'' Yet her genuine art lies in the language she uses to forge Cassandra's seared poetic consciousness.
It would be unfair to reveal Wolf's new twist on the plot Homer wove or her characterization of such ''heroes'' as Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector, but it won't spoil the story to say that she creates a sham war fought by base men whose heroic status is the work of dissemblers. In the essays following the novel, Wolf reconstructs her own fascination with Cassandra.
Feminists should hail Wolf's accomplishment as nothing less than a revision of one of the cornerstones of Western civilization. At the same time, she has written an allegory that makes clear war is not the place where Western heroes are made. Books are. But for culture to continue, Wolf notes, war - specifically nuclear war - must be understood as the culmination of a process begun with the Trojan wars: death and little else. Only the living can create heroes and perpetuate stories.