[OPE-L] Kurt Vonnegut's humanism was popular in the Soviet Union

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Apr 25 2007 - 16:08:25 EDT

Russian readers, perhaps, mourn Kurt Vonnegut more than others.

By Victor Sonkin

Published: Moscow Times, April 20 2007

When Kurt Vonnegut died last week, it sent powerful ripples through Russia,
even in these days of declining readership. The generation that grew up in
the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s listed Vonnegut among their favorite
authors. There were at least four reasons for that.

One was Vonnegut's life story and his aversion to war. Enlisted in the U.S.
Army during World War II, he was captured by the Germans and was one of a
handful of American POWs who survived the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945;
he was later freed by Soviet troops. This experience formed the core of his
novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." Throughout the postwar era, both official
Soviet propaganda and popular feelings were strongly antiwar (even the
infamous Afghan campaign was never heralded in belligerent terms), so
Vonnegut was in tune with the nation's mood.

Another reason was that he wrote science fiction, one of the few ways for
writers to address important issues that would have been censored in other
genres. "Cat's Cradle" was about scientists' (and society's) responsibility;
the seminal short story "Harrison Bergeron" showed how egalitarianism could
turn into tyranny. Such issues, taboo in everyday Soviet writing, could be
smuggled in through science fiction and enjoyed considerable success.

Third was Vonnegut's style. This usually gets lost in translation, but
Vonnegut was lucky to have Rita Rait-Kovalyova as his translator. In one of
Sergei Dovlatov's satirical sketches, someone asks him who has the best
prose style in Russian. He says, "Rita Rait," and the reaction is, "You mean
Vonnegut in Russian is better than Fedin? How awful." (Konstantin Fedin was
an official Soviet writer and bureaucrat.)

Finally, it was just sheer chance. No book by a living foreign author,
especially an American, could appear in the Soviet Union without the
blessing of the Party. Vonnegut was, in a sense, authorized. This explains
the extent of his popularity, which other authors of a comparable caliber,
such as Saul Bellow or Joseph Heller, did not achieve here.

In a 2006 interview, he said: "The Army kept me on because I could type, so
I was typing other people's discharges and stuff. And my feeling was,
'Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?'
That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've
done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now?"

Vonnegut has gone home. Russians, perhaps, mourn him more than others; his
books have been encouraging and educating them for several decades.


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