Envy by Yuri Olesha

envy (1)Can a satirical novel from the early days of the Soviet Union speak to contemporary readers?  Will they even be able to make heads or tails of it?  Russian humor can be, well, different.

To be honest, I’m a little uncomfortable reading Russian literature these days.  The stuff I read is old stuff–pre-Soviet and early Soviet era literature and early science fiction genre stuff.  It’s almost always against the established order, at least partly.  But between what’s happening in the Ukraine and the wildly supported anti-gay legislation and the widespread anti-gay violence currently going on in Russia, I’m starting to feel uneasy reading the stuff.

But read it I do, ’cause I like it.

I liked Envy by Yuri Olesha.

In Olesha’s novel, Andre envy’s Nicolai.  One night, Nicolai finds Andre lying drunk his walk home.   He takes Andrei back to his apartment and gives him the couch. Andre basically moves in, sponging off of the much more successful Nicolai.  In spite of Nicolai’s generosity, Andrei dislikes the man, despising him more and more as he comes to know him.

Nicolai is a very successful mogul of a sort.  He is a model Soviet citizen, the head of food production and distribution for Moscow.  Nicolai is developing a mass produced sausage that will revolutionize food production bettering the lives of all people.  He is also building an enormous dining hall, one that will accommodate huge numbers of people at once, called Two Bits.   Andrei cannot understand how a sausage king can achieve the fame and glory Nicolai has.

The back and forth between the two makes up the novels comedy.  Andrei eventually forms an alliance with Nicolai’s less successful brother ‘who encourages him to kill Nicolai.  Andrei’s brother sees himself and Nicolai as part of an older generation, one that is losing out to the coming man represented by Andrei, a man who finds glory in developing a new kind of sausage.  He urges Nicolai:

“…make people talk about you, Kavalerov (Nicolai). It’s clear that everything is on its way to wrack and ruin, everything has been predetermined, there’s no escape–you’re going to perish, fat-nose! Every minute the humiliations are going to multiply, every day your enemy is going to flourish like a pampered youth.  We’re going to perish. That’s clear. So dress up your demise, dress it up in fireworks, tear the clothes off whoever is outshining you, say farewell in such a way that your ‘goodbye’ comes crashing down through the ages.”

One could publish this in the Soviet Union in 1927, but not after Stalin came to power.  The introduction informs us that while Olesha did not suffer under the Stalin the way so many other writers did, he never wrote another novel.  The satire of Envy wasn’t enough to get him in too deep, but it was enough to keep him from creating more.

I can’t help but wonder how many voices Putin will silence before he and his legions of followers are through.