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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Nikolai Nikolaevich

Yuz Aleshkovsky

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To purchase Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage

Title: Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage
Author: Yuz Aleshkovsky
Genre: Novellas
Written: 1970/1977 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 185 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage - US
Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage - UK
Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage - Canada
  • Nikolai Nikolaevich: A Science Fiction Story
  • Camouflage: A Medical History
  • Russian titles: Николай Николаевич (1970) and Маскировка (1977)
  • Circulated in samizdat; first published in 1980
  • Translated by Duffield White
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Susanne Fusso
  • A previous translation, by Terry Myers and Nataliya Gavrilova, Two by Aleshkovsky, was expected from Dalkey Archive Press (2016) but does not appear to have ever materialized

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing Soviet satire, raw and tending towards the manic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 29/5/2019 Boris Dralyuk

  From the Reviews:
  • "These two extended monologues are exhilaratingly fresh variations on the deadening reality of postwar Soviet existence, as well as carnivalesque purges of pent-up frustration. In essence, however, Aleshkovsky’s prose is (with a nod to Brodsky) an unfolding symphony inspired by the Russian language itself. (...) Aleshkovsky’s novels are exuberant, hugely enjoyable documents of a society petering out -- and of a language that never goes limp." - Boris Dralyuk, TimesLiterary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage collects two short novels, written in 1970 and 1977 respectively, originally circulated in samizdat and only first published -- also together -- in a Russian-language edition from Ardis in 1980, shortly after Aleshkovsky emigrated from the Soviet Union.
       In Nikolai Nikolaevich the eponymous character is a petty criminal who lucks into an unusual niche-career. He is no Soviet hero, acknowledging his basically criminal disposition from the first -- his story begins with his release from prison after the war, when he was nineteen, and, lucking into a residence permit for Moscow, he pursues pickpocketing rather than any actual work when he settles in. With the risks of his criminal pursuits beginning to outweigh the possible rewards, his helpful aunt has a neighbor, Klizma, arrange a job in a scientific laboratory.
       Nikolai begins just doing basic dirty work, but he's soon fed up with it and ready to quit -- but Klizma has an idea: "You must become a donor". The laboratory has grand ambitions with human sperm -- with Nikolai to become: "the progenitor of a newly engendered human tribe on another planet", as they intend to send thermoses of his sperm into outer space .....
       It's a pretty sweet gig -- come in, masturbate, and then do whatever he likes. And he finds his sperm gives him good bargaining power, too, as he negotiates an increase in pay, as well as other bonuses. Of course, masturbating on command -- "Attention -- orgasm !" -- isn't always as easy as hoped for, and occasionally someone has to offer a helping hand
       Then the authorities crack down, unimpressed by the programme, with the science not fitting in with Soviet ideals -- this all taking place against the backdrop of Lysenkoism. When Stalin dies, there's a shift again, and Nikolai again becomes a test subject. Having taken to reading, other complications arise, as they find: "Nikolai Nioklaevich, your penis is terribly sensitive to aesthetic phenomena", with Nikolai recording the effects different works have on his tumescence: How the Steel was Tempered and The Three Musketeers are among the works that will do it; Don Quixote -- which: "made me cry like a baby for three weeks" -- has anything but the desired effect (indeed, "left it flaccid as a frozen earlobe").
       Literature really hits home:

After reading Don Quixote, jerking off has become difficult and even scary. What am I doing here at a time when we should be continuing the war against windmills ?
       Camouflage is set considerably later, in the run-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The narrator, Fedya Milashkin, acknowledges that on the surface the Soviet Union and everything produced there doesn't look too pretty -- "Yes, our shoes are crap. We do drink all day and night" -- but he is certain that it's also all a cover: camouflaged, just out of sight of prying eyes, the Soviet Union has accomplished greatness.
       Of course, there's still work to do -- especially in preparation for the Olympics, and all the foreigners who will get a close-up look at Soviet reality. Here the necessity of camouflage becomes clear: disguise reality, so that things look different. So, for example: "it will be forbidden to form lines outside supermarkets and department stores". And the preparations make a good explanation for, for example, the lack of fresh vegetables and meat in stores: it's all being saved up for the Olympics, for the athletes and the expected tourists.
       There's an almost manic intensity to these monologue-novels, the narrators bold and loud, including in dialogue that is out-burst heavy -- though always with a touch of circumspection, as they're careful with the wording of what they commit themselves too in a regime known to crack down on the slightest deviation from the (not always clear) official line. They both play at being naïfs, too -- but coyly: they're not quite as foolish and blind as they sometimes want to come across. The language they use is raw and direct -- a challenge to translate, too --, and cleverly twisted.
       These satires of the Soviet Union are dense and dynamic, Aleshkovsky's guides, and their raw and plain- and out-spoken manner, skewering many targets. Extreme narratives -- in language, and in many of the basic details of plot and characters -- they hold up reasonably well even long after the fall of the regime -- though much is rather Soviet-specific.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 December 2019

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Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yuz Aleshkovsky (Юз Алешковский) was born in 1929 and emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979. He died in 2022.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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