Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage
by Yuz Aleshkovsky, translated by Duffield White, edited by Susanne Fusso
Pub Date 11 Jun 2019
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Among contemporary Russian writers, Yuz Aleshkovsky stands out for his vivid imagination, his mixing of realism and fantasy, and his virtuosic use of the rich tradition of Russian obscene language. These two novels, written in the 1970s, display Aleshkovsky’s linguistic gifts and keen observations of Soviet life.
Nikolai Nikolaevich begins when its titular hero, a pickpocket by trade, is released from prison after World War II and finds a job in a Moscow biological laboratory. Starting out as a kind of janitor, he is soon recruited to provide sperm for strange experiments intended to create life in the Andromeda galaxy. The hero finds himself at the center of the 1948 purge of biological science in the Soviet Union, in a transgressive tale that joins science fiction (and science fact) with gulag slang and a love story. The protagonist and narrator of Camouflage is an alcoholic who claims that he and his gang of friends are just one part of a vast camouflaging operation organized by the Party to hide the Soviet Union’s underground military-industrial complex from the CIA’s spy satellites. As they pass their time on the streets and share their alcohol-inspired fantasies, they see the stark reality of the Cold War in Russia in the late seventies. Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage introduces English-speaking readers to a master of the comic first-person narrative.
Yuz Aleshkovsky was born in 1929 in Krasnoyarsk and grew up in Moscow. He served in the Soviet navy and was imprisoned from 1950 to 1953 for “violating discipline.” He published children’s books but became best known for his songs and novels circulated in samizdat before he emigrated to the United States in 1979. His works in English include Kangaroo (1999).
Duffield White is professor emeritus of Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. He is the translator of Tolstoi in the Sixties by Boris Eikhenbaum (1982).
Susanne Fusso is professor of Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. She is the translator of Trepanation of the Skull by Sergey Gandlevsky (2014).
“Forget old myths about censored, obedient Soviet citizens, and meet Aleshkovsky’s wildly enterprising and emphatically free-thinking protagonists who don’t hesitate to use colorful language to make a point about body politics, the scientific use of semen, and other absurdities of modern life.”
—Yvonne Howell, University of Richmond
“Yuz Aleshkovsky often gets lost in the shuffle when discussing of the important Russian writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These outstanding English translations of two of his early works offer readers another chance to encounter his idiosyncratic, occasionally profane, and thoroughly remarkable voice.”
—Derek C. Maus, State University of New York at Potsdam