May 11 2017

Militärmusik by Wladimir Kaminer

The cover says that Militärmusik is a novel, but I suppose the main point of that designation is to relieve Wladimir Kaminer (why doesn’t he use the usual transliteration in English?) of any obligation even to pretend to be telling a true story. I mean, Militärmusik is told in the first person, the main character is named Wladimir Kaminer, and all of the main events are things that actually occurred to him, as far as I can tell. Still, early on he relates that he had both a habit and a talent for telling tales, and that got him into plenty of trouble in the later years of the Soviet Union when he was growing up. Best to call this book a novel rather than an autobiography, no need to worry about the details of what happened, lest they get in the way of a good story. Though that may not be entirely in his favor; reality is under no obligation to be as believable as a novel. It often wasn’t, especially in the Soviet Union.

Kaminer recounts his life from birth up to his early 20s, when he left Moscow for Berlin. He was born in 1967, so his childhood was marked by the stagnation of Soviet society under Brezhnev, and his teens and young adulthood by the ferment and upheaval of the Gorbachev era, when first Soviet certainties crumbled, and then the Union itself vanished in a round of signatures in the Belarusian woods. By that time, Kaminer has fled to the West, and Militärmusik has come to an end.

Kaminer’s Moscow is not the home of great thinkers, of depressives wrestling with the great questions of existence, or political firebrands trying to make the world anew. He and his friends — the stories in this slender volume are mostly of boys and young men — are sly dogs and slackers, trying to get by, trying to put one over on the system, trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Most of all it’s funny! Anyone who says the Soviet Union was nothing but gray and drab and horrible doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Especially by the Brezhnev years, the system had mellowed into shambling corruption, and the late-night knock on the door came for very few. Knuckleheads like Kaminer could bounce from a young sailors’ camp (they climbed the fence of the nearby Communist Youth League camp to meet girls) to theater school to low-level jobs where ensuring the actors’ sobriety was one of the greatest challenges. He says that he himself indulged very little, only enough to keep the actors company.

The closest that anyone comes to Communism is the free-floating camp deep in a Latvian forest that Kaminer and a friend hitchhike to one summer. It’s actually three camps: Idos (idealists, people who have found their one answer to life and want to persuade everyone else), Narcos (people who have found their drug and just want to indulge all summer) and Indos (from the Soviet idea of American Indians, but basically everyone else). They are all young, fit, and free, and everyone contributes one way or another. It’s the kind of anarchy that cropped up surprisingly often in the cracks of Soviet society.

His friends were also among the first to organize rock concerts. These usually took place in apartments, as they were not strictly legal. He talks about how they spotted the KGB ringers and made sure not to charge them admission, so as not to be charged with profiteering, which was still illegal at the time. His story of encountering other KGB agents when they took one of their acts to Kiev is emblematic of how in the 1980s repression was routinized, for better and for worse. Kaminer’s time in the Army also surely glosses over hardships and possible bad outcomes. Possibly the most important event for his future was his father’s successful effort to get him taken into a cushy unit, one that turns out to be home to sons of generals and ambassadors. Readers will only know how much that mattered if they know what other fates are possible for young recruits in the Soviet Army, even in peacetime. Kaminer does not dwell on this detail; his main purpose is to tell funny stories. But it is still there.

Kaminer writes briskly, one of the advantages of telling stories in his second language. He’s funny, he’s personable, he’s a good companion for tales that may or may not be true. As far as I can tell, Russian Disco (his first book) is the only one available in English. It’s a good starting point: stories of life as an immigrant in early-1990s Berlin, when both he and the city are still caught between East and West.

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