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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Good Stalin

by
Victor Erofeyev


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author



Title: Good Stalin
Author: Victor Erofeyev
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2013_
Length: 383 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Ce bon Staline - France
Der gute Stalin - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Хороший Сталин
  • Excerpts were published as The Good Stalin in The New Yorker (issue of 28 December 1998/4 January 1999)

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Our Assessment:

A- : very entertaining autobiographical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 29/5/2004 Peter Demetz
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 4/5/2004 Ulrich M. Schmid
TLS . 19/1/2005 Oliver Ready


  From the Reviews:
  • "Jerofejew ist ein wunderbarer Erzähler, wenn er nur seine Geschichten auftischt (.....) Wenn er über den russischen Volkscharakter zu spintisieren beginnt, erinnert er an einen zweitrangigen Dostojewski-Charakter gegen vier Uhr morgens, aber anderswo wieder trifft er den Nagel auf den Kopf. (...) Der gute Stalin fordert in jedem Augenblick zu Widerspruch und Zustimmung heraus, und das kann man beileibe nicht von allen sagen, weder von den Russen noch den anderen." - Peter Demetz, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(B)y some margin Erofeyev’s most engaging work to date. (...) Apparently honest to a fault, Khoroshii Stalin is also a deliberate tease, as much a mockery of the reader as the earlier stories: are we faced with a fiction that reads like an autobiography, or an autobiography disguised as a novel ? (...) The bookish sections are unsatisfying, with a lengthy chronicle of the Metropol affair substituting for real insight into the literary and artistic circles to which Erofeyev remains heavily indebted, especially in his treatment of the relationship between artist and authority." - Oliver Ready, Times Literary 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:

       Erofeyev explicitly frames his book as a story of patricide, admitting to killing his father in the book's opening line. It wasn't actual murder -- Erofeyev quickly reassures his readers that his father remains alive and well to this day -- but rather a political murder, Erofeyev's role in the 1979 publication of the notorious literary anthology Metropol destroying his father's high-flying diplomatic career just before he was to be named acting Foreign Minister. The book looks ahead to those events in its early pages, but then goes back to the beginning, Erofeyev recounting (at a leisurely pace) his fairly privileged youth and then the path that led him to Metropol. Patricide nevertheless overshadows the entire book, as it is a writing-free from his parents, a description of a life of emotional ties but ideological difference. Dad was, ultimately, a Stalinist, a believer in and largely uncritical follower of the great Soviet father-figure, and the son never was; indeed, it's the negation of that larger father -- inevitably leading to a confrontation (that turned out bigger and messier than anyone anticipated) -- that is Erofeyev's true crime.
       Erofeyev's father also does the only thing he can do: accept his fate (with Erofeyev seeming genuinely surprised by his father's easy generosity in forgiving him). All in all, it is a typical Soviet story -- except in how surprisingly free of true tragedy it is.
       Хороший Сталин is labelled a novel, but it reads entirely like a memoir. At one point Erofeyev (splendidly) describes the lies he was capable of in youth, and one wonders whether similar embellishment took place in this narrative, but overall it rings -- certainly in the main facts, if perhaps not all the details -- entirely true. Novel ? memoir ? perhaps it doesn't matter. Certainly it's useless trying to read it solely as one or the other; accept it as (n)either, and move on .....
       Much of Хороший Сталин is the story of privileged youth. Erofeyev compares himself to Nabokov, living a privileged and happy childhood that remained largely (at least for a time) unaffected by politics, despite family members being important figures of the governments of the day. The only difference was that Nabokov was part of the aristocracy, and Erofeyev part of the nomenklatura.
       The descriptions of Erofeyev's father's wild World War II experiences, with numerous narrow escapes, are typical of the tone and subject-matter: Erofeyev is almost relentlessly upbeat, taking a cheery view of almost all hardships. Everything turned out fine in the end, and that's what matters. That the events are often wild and improbable makes little difference: everything turns out to be fairly wild and probable, even what should be the most mundane things.
       Erofeyev's father worked both as Stalin's interpreter and for Molotov, and shortly after Stalin's death, Erofeyev just reaching school-age, he was transferred to Paris. Life in the West suited everyone -- and predictably left young Erofeyev permanently dissatisfied with Soviet conditions for the rest of his life. As cultural attaché the elder Erofeyev and his wife hobnobbed with the French artists and intellectuals of the time, suiting both parents (the culturally interested mother, as well as the father (even though he had no understanding of art and never read a book) who couldn't complain about the lifestyle). There are encounters and friendships with Louis Aragon and Yves Montand and Picasso, and though the Erofeyevs move in almost as high cultural and political circles in Moscow, it's just a bit nicer in the West. Erofeyev notes the change they undergo, in clothing, style and manner -- while, as a child, living in his own surreal version of the West, taking most everything for granted.
       It's a nice and very enjoyable memoir of those Paris-years, a bizarre sort of life (complete with one highly disturbing sexual encounter) seen through a child's eyes that doesn't yet know what normalcy might be. (It's hardly surprising when Erofeyev learns from someone else that he now has a brother; his mother actually managed (and bothered) to conceal her pregnancy from him.) Sent back to Russia while his parents stay on in Paris for a year, Erofeyev does get a shock to the system, but also handles this as best he can. Still: it is that trip back from Paris to Moscow in 1958 that marks the end of his childhood to him.
       Erofeyev isn't torn between his parents, taking the best from both. His mother's love of and interest in art appeals to (and rubs off on) him -- though with his brother her favourite that eventually acted as something of a barrier between the two. The father, meanwhile, is loving but also oddly disconnected, devoted to his job and principled yet blind to the consequences of being a cog in this particular machine. Erofeyev calls his father the 'good Stalin' of the title, his father the personification of that side of the tyrant that explained his appeal and success (continuing, with the widespread lingering Stalin-nostalgia found in Russia, to this day).
       Erofeyev doesn't join his father when he is made ambassador in West Africa, but does visit him on vacation -- more fascinating scenes from that time, though tinged with perhaps a bit more innocence than is realistic. Later postings, in evermore important positions, keep Erofeyev's father in the West -- Paris again, then Vienna -- always holding that wonderful diplomatic passport (a pass to freedom, and a comfortable lifestyle the Erofeyevs had gotten very used to). Until, of course, everything comes crashing down in 1979.
       Erofeyev also describes how he became a writer, including a nice description of his love for the forbidden Erika-typewriter that, he says, made him a writer. Eventually he came to join the Writers' Union, published on de Sade (nicely describing the process of getting something like that into print), and eventually got involved with the Metropol-project, an anthology that caused quite a commotion, got him (and some of the others) thrown out of the Writers' Union (which meant they could never publish in the Soviet Union again), and received a lot of foreign press attention.
       Erofeyev's account of the Metropol-scandal isn't rushed, but he doesn't go into too much detail, describing it fairly generally (and still and always in that same upbeat tone). As elsewhere, he seems reluctant to probe too deeply and carefully, and really explore the consequences and ramifications. He's pleased that his father can deal with what happens to him, but doesn't wonder too hard about exactly how much it might have meant to the old man. It's an approach that makes the book a very entertaining one, but leaves a slightly hollow feel to it.
       Practically all of Хороший Сталин is a wonderful read. Yes, one wishes for a closer consideration of this widespread and unchallenged subservience to Stalin (Erofeyev only goes so far as too offer more general observations about the Russian character), but it's such a winning read that one can readily excuse what shallows there are. Highly recommended.

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Links:

Good Stalin: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Victor Erofeyev (Виктор Ерофеев, Victor Erofeev, Viktor Jerofejew) was born in 1947.

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