Mark Danner

Novels Rented By Night

"I don't recognize myself as a satirist,'' said Vladimir Voinovich. ''No, I'm just trying to depict reality.''

By Vladimir Voinovich
Translated by Richard Lourie
424 pp. San Diego: Harcourt

”I don’t recognize myself as a satirist,” said Vladimir Voinovich. ”No, I’m just trying to depict reality.”

Depicting his own reality recently in an interview at The New York Times, Mr. Voinovich, who is 55, described his years as a ”nonwriter” in the Soviet Union with all the panache of a stand-up comedian acting out a Kafka story. After part of his long-awaited satirical novel, ”The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” was rejected by the journal Novy Mir in 1969, it began circulating in samizdat – the black market publishing movement then in full flower – and was finally published, without the writer’s consent, in an emigre magazine in West Germany.

Mr. Voinovich was summoned to the Writers’ Union forthwith. ”It was like the Irangate committee,” he said. ”They asked me – very strict, you know – how this manuscript appeared abroad. I said I don’t know, but I suspect you sent it. Where is your copy?” Not amused, the committee banned Mr. Voinovich’s books. So while living in Moscow he published his novels and stories abroad and his books were smuggled back into the Soviet Union, there to be sold on the black market or rented, ”by the night,” by those who owned precious copies. ”It’s just like today,” he said with a laugh, ”only now [the books] only have to make half the trip.”

The K.G.B. spied, visited and supplied him with constant ”escorts.” The writer fired back with satirical ”Open Letters,” published in samizdat and broadcast over the Voice of America; one of them, ”An Open Letter to Andropov,” he wrote after a meeting with two K.G.B. officers in 1975 at which, Mr. Voinovich said, he was poisoned: ”I think they changed my cigarettes.”

In 1980, he left for Stockdorf, a village near Munich, where he writes books that find their way to the Soviet Union in the suitcases of friends, and also through broadcasts: ”I will read this book on the BBC, and millions will listen to it; in the Soviet Union people are recording it, and they distribute the tapes.”

Is there any hope, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, that Mr. Voinovich’s books will be sold openly? ”No, no, they publish only dead writers. . . . This book, it’s satire, so it may be the last thing they will permit. They are afraid to be funny, you know. If you poke fun they can’t tolerate it.”