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Alex La Guma. A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition.

Alex La Guma. A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition. Edited by Christopher J. Lee. 284 pp. New York: Lexington Books, 2017. ISBN: 1498536026.

A Soviet Journey renders rural Soviet life through the eyes of a South African-cosmopolitan. Alex La Guma, an exile and novelist, presents his journey by train and commentary on Soviet life in a vivid, literary style reminiscent of his novels. Editor Christopher J. Lee annotates and updates La Guma's 1978 work. The resulting book allows readers to glimpse how socialist-communist and nonaligned leaders throughout the world conceptualized and often romanticized Brezhnev's and his predecessors' states.

La Guma arrived at both communism and exile early, culminating in his 1970s stint in the USSR. His father Jimmy La Guma, a prominent trade union activist and Communist Party of South Africa leader, embraced Lenin's teachings but often broke with his party on the role African nationalism should play within it. Alex La Guma found the written word most effective as an organizational tool. After being tried in the infamous 1956 Treason Trial, he left South Africa permanently in 1966, serving as an African National Congress emissary abroad. In the years before reaching Moscow, he had won the Lotus Prize and edited a volume of memoirs by black South Africans in addition to writing novels. Shortly after this journey, La Guma and his wife Blanche--also a memoirist--moved to Havana, which became his final resting place in 1985.

Unsurprisingly, then, the La Guma who arrives in Moscow at the work's beginning wants to understand and embrace the communist state, yet throughout struggles as he sees the system differ across the spaces where he travels. Additionally, he has brought his own hazy memories of the place from a childhood visit with his father. As he moves toward Leningrad and then east through Siberia and Central Asia, he travels largely through small towns, making his comparisons not only to the noncommunist world, but of the Kremlin's glittering lights as well.

This updated edition of A Soviet Journey locates La Guma squarely within the local contexts he narrates but also, importantly, within the wider communist world. Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o begins the foreword by speaking of La Guma's place within the African literary canon. He compares La Guma's realism with that of authors such as Chinua Achebe (xi). Beyond that, however, he writes of the author's fervent belief that the written word and direct action could alternate as means of effecting change. In discussing their encounters in Moscow and Astana--those which gave rise to the tour upon which La Guma based A Soviet Journey just two years later--Ngugi writes that "In his life and books, he struggled for a society in which all people could find their humanity. Joy in life was part of that humanity, and it comes through in his novels and memoir" (xii). Following this, wife Blanche La Guma's preface expands upon Ngugi's description to locate the author within the wider nonaligned world.

Lee's introduction, like his annotations, places La Guma again in the center of a vibrant "southern Marxist" (5) literary and politically imaginative space. Utilizing the assassination of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani as a lens, Lee discusses the end of apartheid and attendant Cold War ending as "the death of a specific political imagination--a radical internationalism" (2). This image introduces transnational activist trajectories not writ large, as they often are within historiographies, but encapsulated through intimate, personal moments such as those La Guma narrates. Thus, Soviet-Africa studies appear as best told through personal histories, reminiscent of recent multiregion biographical work.

As within his own work, Lee pleads a compelling case for the value of such tri-continental connection, evoking both its past and present implications. Many of these implications, Lee argues, lead historians away from a solely Atlantic-world focus and toward a larger global study. This is particularly striking within a book published within the United States, a country replete with its own imagining of the Cold War as dead. Yet as Lee reminds us, "A Soviet Journey resituates the vital role that the Soviet Union (USSR) held for liberation struggles around the world as a patron, host, and political model--perspectives that have been lost, particularly at a popular level, since the demise of the USSR itself. A tacit triumphalism has often inflected the historiographies of our neoliberal age, marginalizing moribund Cold War projects that once held meaning for numerous people" (3-4). La Guma's analytical depth and meticulous attention to detail, he adds, positions this among works that best encapsulate these popular exchanges.

Per his introductory notes (xvii), Lee does indeed minimize annotations. Despite the unobtrusiveness of his notes, however, he manages to contextualize actors and places well within a work that may attract readership--and therefore necessitate explanation--across fields. As a result, readers are well oriented by the time the main text begins, and La Guma's words stand largely for themselves. In part, the author believes the USSR's value as a political model to lie not only in its communist experiment, but also in its vast diversity. "Who were these 'human beings'?" he writes. "The Soviet Union is a multinational state; it is populated by more than one hundred large and small nationalities ... Soviet experience in creating a multinational socialist state, in grappling by common effort with a complex national question, has won worldwide recognition ... " (67-68). Thus, throughout the book, La Guma questions the people he encounters not only on the efficacy of the communist state but also on the trials and triumphs of a multinational one--similar to what his own ANC envisioned for South Africa.

In the end, the author concludes that "It had never been my intention to bother with statistics, they are boring and seldom understood" (237). A qualitatively bounded study this may not be, but it does manage to capture the localized, human stories imbued with Marxist imagination. Edited for a new generation, this portrayal of the USSR reminds us of the enduring power of both multinationalism and communism to fascinate.

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Author:Houser, Myra Ann
Publication:Region: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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