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The Soul of a Patriot, or Various Epistles to Ferfichkin.

The Soul of a Patriot is a quasi-autobiographical novel

which came to be written ("inspired" as purported by the translator) as a consequence of events which followed the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. First published in Moscow by Volga in issue number 2 of 1989 under the tide Dusha patriota ili razlichnye poslania Ferfichkinu, it offers a biting yet humorous depiction of a way of life soon to end with the demise of Brezhnev. For Evgeny Popov and writers like him, it is a grateful end. Born in Krasnoyarsk in 1946, Popov made his literary debut as a writer in 1976 with the publication of two short stories in Novyi Mir. Three years later, expelled from the Writers Union, he could be published only abroad and was not to surface again in the Soviet Union until the advent of Gorbachev.

The Soul of a Patriot is a collection of letters (written to the ambiguous character of Ferfichkin) which encapsulates the narrator's reminiscences and movements during the three-month period surrounding the demise of "He Who Once Was." Popov's style is inspired by the work of a number of Russian authors (notably Gogol), whom the translator enumerates in the introduction. To that list might be added the name of Alexander Pushkin, whose tongue-in-cheek prologue to Tales of Belkin is parodied by Popov, as Evgeny disclaims any relationship to his own narrator Evgeny Anatolyevich. Popov uses the correspondence of this "fictional" Evgeny to record a contemporary satire -- the daily events of Soviet life in the colorful context of his own history and views.

To begin, the narrator finds himself on a train (ostensibly on a business trip) and takes the opportunity to sketch out the lives of relatives and friends dating back to prerevolutionary Russia. And these are prodigious in number, covering nearly three pages of text, as Evgeny enumerates them in his final letter. The narrator's verbosity cavorts from the lyrical to the bawdy with language as picturesque as his characters and seemingly as disparate as the scenes of life he might view from the window of the moving train. There is no "hero" per se in the novel; the heroes are the multitudes the narrator recounts, flitting and lurching from "family" long dead to friends still living, from the literary personages of the oft-cited Karamzin to Dostoevsky and Hemingway.

Paralleling Karamzin's Letters of a Russian Traveller (evidently a favorite), the narrator/author moves through vignettes of personal and political history, which come to a sudden stop on the day of Brezhnev's death. At that point the correspondence breaks from the routine of daily writing, and the narrator begins to expostulate almost compulsively on the work (and worth) of a writer in terms of mathematical calculation. The remainder of the novel relates the "new" sights and sounds of Moscow in the wake of Brezhnev's death as Evgeny walks and drinks his way through his country's capital. In his final letter to Ferfichkin, Evgeny describes the televised funeral ceremony in unemotional detail and, literally between the lines, captures "the soul of a patriot."

The Soul of a Patriot is a brisk and often gritty work filled with witticisms and references which Evgeny presumes Ferfichkin (and the reader) will share. As such, it would do well for the uninitiated to study carefully the 127 notes appended to the novel before venturing into Popov's barrage of literary, political, and personal commentary. To those well versed in the chronology of literature and events of "importance" in Soviet life, Popov offers even more in this wry and often amusing look at a moment in history when, as he put it, "Life has intervened, or rather -- death."
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Author:Prednewa, Ludmila
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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