Even by Russian novel standards, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s “The Big Green Tent’’ is a loose, baggy monster. It is almost 600 pages long, with dozens of characters and almost as many narrative digressions, all centered on dissident culture in the post-Stalin years of the Soviet Union. It is structurally unwieldy, using flash forwards to reveal characters’ fates in a sentence or two — this photographer will end up collaborating with the KGB; this poet will meet an early death — only to circle back, hundreds of pages later, to detail the events leading up to these fates.
Above all else, the novel is inclusive. The Soviet Union was not democratic, but Ulitskaya’s fictional vision is: She gathers teachers and party officials, those who opposed the state and those who supported it, dreamy intellectuals and canny operators.
The book’s title comes from a dream that a character named Olga has of a field with an enormous green tent at its center. Waiting peacefully in line to enter the tent are figures from Olga’s life. “[T]he dead and living were there together”: long departed grandparents, childhood friends, allies from the underground literary scene, the KGB agents who hunted these same allies down. This synoptic vision of Russian culture, where past and present, state opponents and state collaborators are brought together, mirrors Ulitskaya’s own project.
The narrator announces early on that she will focus on the lives of three friends, all involved in the arts from a young age and all, at some point in their lives, putting themselves at odds with the Soviet authorities. There is Ilya, a photographer who becomes involved in the dispersal of samizdat, or banned literature, not for noble reasons but for money and the thrills afforded by a life of secrecy and cunning. There is Mikha, “emotionally intense and sensitive to a fault,” who can quote Pushkin for any occasion but whose own verse remains hopelessly “childish.” And there is Sanya, a pianist turned scholar who believes that music “was the incontrovertible proof of the existence of another world.”
But Ilya, Mikha, and Sanya really just serve as nodal points for the novel’s complex character system. In fact, each of the three disappears for large swaths of the narrative, and Ulitskaya uses all of her characters as specific means to a general end: Exploring the great questions raised by living in an intellectually vibrant but politically repressive society. Is literature “the only thing that allows us to survive, the only thing that helps us to reconcile ourselves to the time we live in,” as one character claims, or is it merely juvenile escapism? Is it possible to remain loyal to one’s friends and art in a state that demands a different kind of loyalty? “Can treachery be justified by unendurable, boundless love?”
These large-scale questions drive the novel, not whatever interest we might have in the lives of its characters. After all, the flash forwards mean that we focus on the forces that determine particular characters’ fates as opposed to the fates themselves. At times, Ulitskaya seems less a novelist than an archivist. She gives us scraps of dissident poetry, both real and imagined. She charts the shifts in the cultural winds brought about by Khrushchev in the 1950s. She tells of close encounters with the KGB, as when a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago’’ eludes the authorities by pure happenstance: Right before the KGB arrives, a character unthinkingly stuffs the manuscript into a pair of new boots “to stretch them out a bit.”
Ulitskaya is generous toward her characters, even those who collaborate with the KGB — and there are many who do. But while she describes her characters warmly, she doesn’t inhabit them deeply. Psychological states are flatly asserted rather than fully realized: “Ilya became nervous and importunate: his playful effervescence changed to gloominess.” Characters aren’t souls here, as they are in Dostoevsky, and they rarely possess rich inner lives, as they do in Tolstoy. Rather, they are bit players in the drama that is Soviet history.
At one point, the narrator writes that “so many things happened in Mikha’s life, both good and bad . . . that they all blended into one patchy, vibrant mass.” That’s a good description of “The Big Green Tent’’ itself: messily plotted yet historically textured, sometimes flatly written yet always sympathetically imagined — a patchy, vibrant mass.
By Ludmila Ulitskaya
Translated, from the Russian, by Polly Gannon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp., $35
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and a book critic for Commonweal.