Zoshchenko, satirist of the Soviet Union

AS ANYONE who has tried (and failed) to crack a joke in a foreign language knows, humour is the marker of linguistic mastery. The only thing harder than cracking jokes may be translating them. Perhaps this is why Mikhail Zoshchenko remains a lesser-known Russian writer among English-language readers, despite being one of the Soviet Union’s most beloved humorists, a satirist in the best traditions of Gogol. Boris Dralyuk’s new translation of “Sentimental Tales”, a collection of Zoshchenko’s stories from the 1920s, is a delight that brings the author’s wit to life.

Zoshchenko’s writing career began in the wake of the Russian revolution, following stints in the army during the first world war and on the side of the Red Army in the Russian civil war. He became popular during the 1920s for tales that tackled the contradictions of everyday life during the short-lived liberalism of the New Economic Policy. As Mr Dralyuk notes in his introduction, Zoshchenko “hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.” His contemporaries wondered whose “side” he was on.

Zoshchenko writes around, rather than about the revolution. He observes the minute miseries of the individual life that transcend collective traumas. “As for the limp—which is, anyhow, hardly noticeable—that’s just a sore foot,” he writes of one of his heroes. “It dates back to the tsarist era.” He notes the wild swings of fortune that shift the structure of society: a former landowner is reduced to begging “thanks to the new democratic way of life,” he deadpans. And he never loses sight of the enduring traits of human nature, which—pace Marxist ideology—remain resistant to changes in material conditions. What results is less a dystopia than a cutting send up of the promised utopia. “And will it really be that wondrous, this future life? That’s another question,” he muses. “For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we’re living.”

Such scepticism proved prescient with respect to his own fate. The turn to the official aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism in the 1930s forced Zoshchenko into creative compromises, such as participating in a hagiographic book about the construction of the White Sea Canal by Gulag labourers. Though he survived the Stalinist terror himself, he fell foul of the authorities in 1946, and was expelled from the Soviet Writer’s Union. He was rehabilitated only after Stalin’s death—but upset the party again by proclaiming his innocence in an appearance before foreign students a year later. Zoshchenko’s literary output never recovered from the persecution, and he died impoverished and depressed. Yet after his death, reprints of his early works flew off the shelves—an ending fitting of one of his tales, which often leave the reader uncertain whether to chuckle helplessly at life’s cruel absurdity or succumb to its ineffable sadness.

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