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.


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The Cat at Light's End

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