THE FUR HAT by Vladimir Voinovich, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
122 pp. $17.95, (London: Jonathan Cape)
SATIRE, concerned with criticism of man as a social and moral being, enables a writer to bait the body politic. It is the most direct non-direct way to lodge outrage at hypocrisy. When successful, it is always funny, never preachy. Yet humor, subtle or side-splitting, must remain secondary to the author's larger purpose of flaying sensibilities.
Vladimir Voinovich's latest novel is very successful satire. It flays. ``The Fur Hat,'' - in lucid translation from Russian by Susan Brownsberger - combines the pathos and self-deceit found in ``Death of a Salesman'' with the Kafkaesque milieu of the Soviet intelligentsia. It embraces the Russian literary trait of laughing at despair while despairing.
Voinovich writes with wit and compassion. He also clearly writes from personal experience. He was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union in 1974. His great novel, ``The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,'' was rejected by the same Soviet Writers' Union that the protagonist in ``The Fur Hat'' tries to appease.
Though Voinovich was exiled to the West some 10 years ago - and though glasnost and perestroika have ushered in a new era - he was allowed to visit Moscow recently. He has not lost one iota of acerbity toward the system that ostracized him.
``The Fur Hat'' tells the story of Yefim Semyonovich Rakhlin, a member of the Soviet Writers' Union. The protagonist is a literary and ideological hack, naively enamored of his own mediocre writings. A nobody, Yefim believes himself a somebody. He has published 11 novels about decent, upright, and model citizens, idealized expressions of correctness. The state has blessed his ``talents.'' His artistic success pays tangible dividends: a Romanian living room set, an Arabian bed, an upright Czech piano, a television from Japan, and a Finnish refrigerator, all comfortably ensconced in a five-room apartment in Moscow. His building has an elevator, and it works!
But his life, like his writing, is artificial. He equates, confuses, his material possessions with his ``status.'' This self-delusion is painfully shattered when the Writers' Union announces it will distribute fur hats to its membership. Each writer and literary functionary is to receive a hat made from ``status bequeathing'' fur: muskrat for the powerful, fox for the connected, rabbit for members in good standing, domestic cat fur, well, for nobodies - for Yefim.
However secure Yefim thought his position, however strong he thought his ego, both are clawed deeply when he learns that the hat he has been assigned is tomcat. How can this be? He is a major writer is he not? Simple justice warrants, no, demands he receive, at the very least, rabbit's fur.
But, as he learns, there is no justice for ``a little man'' - especially someone labeled a ``foreign element'' - of Jewish ancestry. Yefim drafts a letter of complaint only to change it and write instead a ``satirical piece that he would send to Pravda. ... He began in a Gogolilan vein: Do you know, gentleman, what is meant by `if the hat fits?' We are not talking of hat size. No, they do not assign Ivan a hat in accordance with the dimensions of his cranium. How then - you may ask, dear reader - do they assign it? In accordance with Ivan's rank.''
And so begins his quest to right what he can only fathom as an intolerable wrong. It slowly, but inexorably obsesses him. Through the evolving intensity of Yefim's obsession, Voinovich creates a pathetically hilarious Catch-22 world, which recognizes self-worth in the most arbitrary and Machiavellian way. The secret police, the Western press, sexual and generational mores, antisemitism, each twists in the harsh light of a quick succession of vignettes. Voinovich even pokes fun at his own Western literary reputation, suggesting dissidents have status because they are dissidents, not good writers.
Cynicism and absurdity have their fling in ``The Fur Hat,'' but never to the extent of eliminating the human motives and emotions of Yefim, however pathetic.
Voinovich never allows his protagonist's complaint to be so shrill as to alienate his reader. He strikes just the right tone of empathy with this little man being treated so unfairly by so many, even himself.