Letter From Albionnby Andrei NavrozovnThe Banality of FictionnIt’s Sunday morning in London. ThenSunday Times is here. (Yes, we toonhave a Sunday Times.) The “Week innReview” section is nice and fat. (Yes,nit’s nice and fat here, too.) Headline:n”End Game: Why the Soviets arenpulling out of Afghanistan.” Photo ofnNajibullah, photo of Gorbachev, photonof two smiling soldiers. Read-out, innbold: “After eight years tied down to anfutile war in Afghanistan, Russia isnpulling out.” Sample paragraph:n”Gorbachev’s personal interventionnhas underlined his conviction that hisnown prestige, and hence the fate of hisnglasnost and perestroika policies, is atnstake.”nYes, it’s Sunday morning in London.nReading the “Report by AskoldnKrushelnycky, with Stephen Milligannin Washington and Angus Roxburgh innMoscow,” fills one with the numbncertainty of being in the West. Doesntruth matter, especially on a Sunday?nIs the war futile? Is Russia pulling out?nWhat are Gorbachev’s convictions?nWho is Gorbachev? What is “prestige”?nWhat are “policies”? Where isnthe “Travel” section?nAh, here’s the “Travel” section.nLet’s see. Headline: “USA: Taking ansmall bite out of the Big Apple.” Photoncaption: “Central Park: host to widenopen spaces, deck chairs and baseballngames in a noisy, humorous city whereneveryone seems to be acting a movienpart.” Photo of two black men watchingn,a baseball game from foldingnchairs, with New York’s skyline in thenbackground. Read-out, in bold: “Whatncould be more romantic than a weekendnin Manhattan, sampling exoticncuisine in Greenwich Village, beforenflexing your sterling muscles innBloomingdales? Or how about a movienand basketball in Boston? The strongnpound and airline rivalry mean a USnweekend makes financial sense — ifnyou can stand the pace.”nAt this moment, one becomes awarenof the fantastic, improbable truth thatn42/CHRONICLESnCORRESPONDENCEnthe author of the travel article is thenvery man who wrote the report onnAfghanistan. No, not figurativelynspeaking. Literally: both articles havenissued from the pen of Askold Krushelnycky,nwhoever he is, to appear side bynside on the same Sunday in the samennewspaper. Let us take a closer look atnthe author’s Manhattan odyssey.nI took a yellow cab to mynfriend’s apartment on Westn119th Street near GolombianUniversity and we later took thensubway into Manhattan. . . . OnnFriday I took the subway intonMadison Avenue. I knew fromnthe movies that it was thenproper time to have coffee andna doughnut in one of thenhundreds of little eateries wherenpeople dive in for breakfast andnthe newspapers. . . . Next day,ncatching up on the culturalnprogramme, I went to thenMetropolitan Museum ofnModern Art.nAnd so on. It’s all here, isn’t it: “yellowncab” (local color), “apartment” (rathernthan “flat,” since it’s important to usensome quaint local expressions), “Colombia”n(well, what’s the difference,nultimately?), the subway ride from WestnII9th Street in Manhattan “into” thenmagical, distant “Manhattan” (it couldnbe a figure of speech, after all), “hundredsnof little eateries” (not on Madison,nperhaps, but on some other street),nthe “Metropolitan Museum” (not thatnfar, really, from the Museum of ModernnArt, especially by taxi) . . . Take andeep breath. Think of some universalnapplication of this twaddle. There mustnbe a column in this.nA recent novel, described by reviewersnhere as “exciting,” “extraordinary,”nand “remarkable,” is set in Moscow.n”Does this come off?” the hero is askednabout the hair on his chest in a momentnof playful passion. “His voice was muffled.n’Does it unzip, you mean—like angorilla suit?'” Now, the truth is thatnnobody in Russia has ever seen such ansuit.nCenturies ago, when educated Europeansnknew nothing of Russia except itsnnnmica and leather, “a Muscovian duke”nnamed Astolfo was credible in a Calderonnplay. Beyond the limits of Europe,nin the words of a Shakespearean scholar,n”monsters dwelt and miracles werencommon.” Yet such nescience wasnhardly an impediment to the writers ofnthe day, Shakespeare among them, forneven when they borrowed a character,nor a setting, from that distant wonderland,nit was invariably their own woridnthey aimed to describe, and describentruthfiilly.nThe world in which we live hasnwitnessed a metamorphosis of imaginativenthinking in our literature that parallelsnthe ethical collapse of Dostoyevsky’snnihilist heroes a century ago. If man cannbecome cockroach (since everything isnallowed), if waiting for Godot is lifen(since anything is possible), if all thingsnare equally likely (except for nuclearnholocaust, which is inevitable), whynshould a writer bother with the “truth”?n”What’s gotten into you today, I don’tnunderstand,” says a character in an1930’s Russian play. “The truth, thentruth! I’ve been telling myself the truthnfor so long that I’ve forgotten what thendamn thing looks like!”nIndeed, any “fiction” will do — thenmore absurd, the better. A gorilla suit innMoscow? Well, it cannot be claimednwith absolute certainty that one hasnnever found its way there. A cannibalnin Manhattan? Surely stranger thingsnhave happened. The fate of glasnostnand perestroika is at stake? Who is tonsay it isn’t?nMass culture conforms to the highbrow.nA “soap” heroine, abducted bynthe exigencies of plot and contract,ndisappears in a flying saucer. A travelnwriter for a national newspaper tells ofnhis journey from West 119th Streetn”into Manhattan.” If life is absurd,nwhy should it matter that there are nonMartians, or that II9th Street is innManhattan?nThe tabloid mind is no longer anthing to conceal. Magazines, fromnNewsweek to Town & Country, proudlynfabricate social phenomena. Kremlinologists,nastrologers, and just plainnliars are in demand at the WhitenHouse. Corporate tycoons openly believenin cryonic resurrection.n