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Books: A Lyre for the KGB

3 minute read
John Skow

A HERO IN HIS TIME

by ARTHUR A. COHEN

278 pages. Random House. $8.95.

Soviet Poet Yuri Maximovich Isakovsky has just made love to his secretary, who is almost certainly the office spy. In the warm indolence that follows, the lady praises one of his verses. She has gleaned far more from it, she says, than she ever learned from a course in Russian literature.

That encomium is immediately regarded as a trap. An old short-story writer warned Yuri about such hazards years ago, after the poet had offered compliments for a tale. “Did I write that?” the old survivor had asked. “Perhaps you shouldn’t like it, and I apologize for having written it. That is, if I wrote it in the first place. And if I didn’t write that story (and I’m not saying that I didn’t), you shouldn’t be congratulating me in a public place with dozens of people whom we don’t even know scurrying past listening.” Yuri Maximovich’s suspicion is well founded. He is dangerous to the state, first because he is a citizen not yet in prison, second because he is a poet, and third because he is a Jew.

Soon after his assignation, Yuri receives a frightening telephone call from the Ministry of Culture. He is to attend a writers’ conference in New York for the purpose of delivering a secret message, contained in a poem written for him by a KGB computer, to some unnamed mole in Manhattan.

Thus far—to the point at which the plot clicks and whirs—Novelist Arthur A. Cohen has written a delightful minor-key farce. Although he is an American (the author of two other well-received novels, In the Days of Simon Stern and The Carpenter Years), Cohen uncannily manages to sound like a U.S.S.R. satirist writing riskily for Samizdat circulation.

The New York section of the book is weaker; perhaps it should have been written by a Soviet. For the satire of the left-wing academic community lacks teeth, and too many plot turns seem to occur in the last third of the novel, sim ply because something has to happen. One touch, however, indicates the book’s essential virtue. Yuri Maximovich is trying to decide whether to defect. To stall for time, he must sell out and read the KGB’s poem. He does so. But first, more artist than survivor, he takes the wretched thing apart and sharpens its images. It is not clear whether he understands that as a secret message it is now worth less. As a poem, he realizes happily, it is not bad at all.

John Skow

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