9:23:13 The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, a book review

The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich has been called a Soviet Catch-22, but I think such comparison is misplaced and skirts Voinovich's true literary achievement.

Ivan Chonkin, a simple peasant, is drafted into the Red Army, and does little more than peel potatoes. One day, however, he is assigned to a remote village, Krasnoye, as a solo guard for an Army biplane grounded there with mechanical problems. It might be ideal for Chonkin because his Army superiors eventually forget him.

War with Germany ensues, but the front is far, far offstage.

[book cover]

Instead, Private Ivan Chonkin portrays rural life under communism in the Stalin era. I was reminded of Eileen Chang's The Rice Sprout Song where communism was also implemented (or not) in the countryside, far from the levers of power (Chang's setting was rural China). Like Chang, Voinovich shows politics aside, human foibles, as ever, must take their course.

I'd also compare Voinovich to Mark Twain. Yes, the humor--satire, hyperbole, quirky characterization--all have an affinity with the American master. Especially Voinovich's facility with dialect, bringing alive various characters, without being distracting, much as Twain did. Moreover, Ivan Chonkin is no country bumpkin played for easy laughs. His character is rounded out, for example, by becoming the common-law husband of Nyura and enjoying a certain domestic life, while dutifully guarding the plane.

Targets of satire are many. An educated villager carries out agricultural experiments to produce a plant that grows potatoes underground, while bearing tomatoes above ground--a wry comment on Soviet scientific faith. Chonkin solicits help composing a letter to his superior that must be "politically correct," if horribly obsequious in its language. The village breaks records for potato crop production--even though its able-bodied men are off at the war front--because Chonkin single-handedly captures a Red Army company and makes them work the fields.

The novel moves forward smartly with Private Chonkin going from a lonely, forgotten guard to what his out-of-touch superiors suspect: a wartime deserter and then a possible German collaborator with a "gang" under his command. Along the way, Voinovich pauses to show flashes of intellectual heft, as evoking Rousseau's noble savage, which the reader readily sees in the person of his protagonist, Ivan Chonkin.

Highly recommended, The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is a novel with a humorous bite I'd gladly read again.

The Life & Extraordinary Life of Private Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich (translated from the Russian by Richard Lourie), Northwestern University Press, 1995, 318 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8101-1243-8.

Read more ...

(click to enlarge image)

The Cat at Light's End

Read the story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

more posts

9:18:13 Autumn Leaves
8:19:13 The Worst Car Driver & Why
8:12:13 The Gardener from Ochakov, a book review
7:25:13 Le Havre by Kaurismaki
7:20:13 This Ain't California
6:27:13 The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, a book review
5:29:13 My Linux (Mis)Adventures
5:25:13 Southern Cross the Dog, a book review
5:5:13 Russian Tumbleweed
4:16:13 "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster
3:26:13 Camera-rama
3:25:13 Moore's Law
3:13:13 Grocery Shopping 
2:28:13 Razor Blade in Moonlight
1:27:13 Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, a book review
1:6:13 Alleys
12:9:12 White Bread, a book review
12:4:12 Update on Old-School Shaving
11:12:12 Ten Great Buys at Dollar Tree
11:6:12 My New Russian Camera
10:29:12 Leaf Day
10:2:12 The Russian Navy in New York?
9:21:12 The Righteous Mind, a book review
9:14:12 Revolution, 1989, a book review
8:23:12 Train Whistles in the Night
8:2:12 Why I've Stockpiled Light Bulbs
7:22:12 Old-School Shaving
7:16:12 Злектроника МК-52, computer de minimus
7:4:12 Ivan's Childhood by Tarkovsky
6:21:12 The Unabomber, a modern Thoreau?
6:12:12 Do the gods exist?
6:7:12 My "Retail Therapy"
5:28:12 On Taxes, We Should Go Green
5:17:12 Portland's Trash
5:6:12 The Toaster Project, a book review
4:24:12 No Seconds
4:12:12 Portland's Runaway Utility Bill
4:8:12 The Repossession, a book review
3:30:12 How I Got Published in Mississippi Review
3:18:12 Rothko
3:9:12 The End of Money, a book review
3:1:12 gutenberg.org
2:18:12 Beauty Plus Pity, a book review
2:5:12 Kirk's Castile Soap
1:29:12 Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer, a book review
1:22:12 Thirst, a book review
1:17:12 My IBM ThinkPad 1999-2012
1:11:12 String Beans
12:22:11 Spiritual TMJ
12:16:11 1Q84, a book review
12:11:11 How Portland Became Portlandia
12:1:11 The Fixie
11:20:11 Camus' Insight
11:13:11 Old & Worthy
11:7:11 Life Is Tragic
10:31:11 A Matter of Death and Life, a book review
10:25:11 Dead Letter, Email Fatigue
10:18:11 Reinventing Collapse, a book review
10:11:11 Rereading Pirsig
10:1:11 The Sisters Brothers, a book review
9:26:11 The Great Stagnation, a book review
9:16:11 Coffee, The Affordable Luxury
9:12:11 The Genius of Value
9:5:11 Death and the Penguin, a book review