Novel of Soviet underground is great bear-hug of a book

Metro: A Novel of the Moscow Underground, by Alexander Kaletski. New York: Viking. 374 pp. $17.95. There are two undergrounds here.

The first is the literal one, the subway that dazzled Sasha, the narrator of this exuberant first novel, when he visited the capital at the age of seven and discovered the beautiful place that continues to delight him as an adult: ``Why the modernization of Russia started with the hanging of chandeliers beneath the earth I didn't know, but I did know that when I was underground, I felt free.''

The second type of underground is the Bohemian world Sasha finds himself in after leaving his home in Tula at 19 to come to study at Moscow's Theater Institute.

``We started our theatrical education at a vegetable storage house,'' relates Sasha, for this is certainly a theater institute of the absurd, where the students spend weeks unloading potatoes and peeling rotten leaves from cabbages, where the feast at the end of their freshman year is made of papier m^ach'e.

Among his new acquaintances, Sasha becomes friends with Stas, ``a blubbery giant'' who astonishes him with his skill at obtaining the impossible, a taxi and an edible chicken. Andrewlka, who works for the KGB (as a porter) mysteriously possesses the truly impossible, a two-room apartment, something that is ``everybody's dream, but by law, an individual can't occupy more than nine square meters.'' And then there is Lena, an acting student with whom Sasha falls in love.

After their graduation, Lena's harrowing experience with a rape attempt and subsequent incarceration in a psychiatric clinic from which she manages to escape trigger thoughts of escaping Russia entirely. She cries, ``I hate my native land. I know it's horrible and wrong, but it's a fact. . . . I ask you, I beg you, to promise me that we will go away from here.''

Sasha promises.

Until that moment, the underground life of their group had been relatively carefree. Now the game of outwitting bureaucracy has, for Sasha and Lena, a very dangerous goal.

So the absurdity intensifies in this society in which lives are led looking over a shoulder, in which the currency is less the ruble than the bottle, in which you must have ``propiska,'' the Moscow residency certificate that is only issued to students until graduation. Thus, ``we would inevitably have to leave the capital . . . if we didn't land a job at a Moscow theater. But the theater had no right to give us a job if we didn't have propiska.''

Author Alexander Kaletski, who emigrated from Russia to America in 1975, has many talents; he illustrated ``Metro'' as well.

And he is working on a sequel, good news indeed. ``Metro'' is a joy, funny and profound, cynical yet innocent. One can't resist saying that it is a great bear-hug of a book.

(Note: In case any of my former teachers happened to read my April 16 review of Robert Reeves's ``Doubting Thomas'': Gremlins inserted ``British poet'' in front of my mention of Ezra Pound. Cross my heart, I do still know that Pound is American.)

Ruth Doan MacDougall, the author of eight novels, reviews first novels for the Monitor.

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