The philistine is alive and well in Soviet Russia—and, like his brethren the world over, he is writing novels. It is a mistake to assume that under the conditions of totalitarianism, culture naturally separates, like oil and vinegar, into two discrete layers: the official, government layer and the subterranean, clandestine one. Instead, rather like the dressing on a tossed salad, culture under any political conditions is an emulsion that coats the living fiber of society as if it were the leafiest Bethany lettuce. Accordingly, the epithets “good” and “bad” are not synonymous with “samizdat” or “Goslitizdat”; as elsewhere in the world, the wind bloweth where it listeth. In Metro, billed punningly as “a novel of the Moscow underground,” the wind bloweth not.

To be sure, the Soviet philistine turned novelist is not as virulent a species as his West European or American equivalent. After all, since any unofficial act is an act of dissidence, every time he takes up the pen he flirts with martyrdom; his Western confrere risks only unemployment. Still, while this makes one something less of a philistine than the other, it has little effect on either one’s writing, and equally bad novels can be written in a writers’ colony in San Francisco and in a penal colony in Vorkuta.

Typically, the philistine’s novels contain richly varied material—comedy and tragedy, farce and drama, truth and invention. He can write about anything, in any style, because he is not ashamed to write without genius. In Metro, the author describes his life and adventures; he wishes to convey that life in Russia had many unhappy, or perhaps even tragic, moments, though many of his adventures were comic. In brief, the joys and sorrows of the author’s life can be described as those of love and youth; his adventures are meant to make the reader laugh at the absurdities of day-to-day existence in the Soviet capital.

Not one line in this novel is genuine literature; not one comic adventure is above the level of a scabrous anecdote, or one situation anything but an aggregation of sloppy details. Yes, the philistine is alive and well in Soviet Russia and he is publishing in the United States.

Alexander Kaletski: Metro; Viking; New York; $17.95.