NY Times Book Review, Sun., Nov. 20, 1988
A Case for Resurrection
Review of The Judgment Day Archives, by Andrei Moscovit, translated by Robert Bowie, 402pp. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1988.
by Stephen Dobyns
How is a witch doctor able to stop the flow of blood from a wound with the repetition of a few muttered words? How can a hypnotist cause a burn with a ruler? How can a yogi reduce his pulse rate and make himself invulnerable to pain?
Well, imagine that within the blood are elements that carry information from one part of the body to another—protecting, strengthening, educating—and that it is possible, if you’re a witch doctor or a yogi, to speak to these elements. Imagine that these elements—call them transcendents—contain the code for the whole human creature, and if a way were found to freeze and preserve a drop of blood, then someday the human creature could be resurrected, cloned from that one drop of blood. Imagine that a way has been found. Wouldn’t this guarantee immortality?
Such ideas are at the center of The Judgment Day Archives, a sprawling Russian novel of great energy and imagination. The scientist who makes the necessary discoveries is an Estonian hematologist, Leida Rigel, a woman whose complicated private life includes two former husbands, several boyfriends, two adolescent children and a difficult mother. Additionally, she is being pursued by agents of the K.G.B. Leida Rigel is brought in contact with a somewhat sinister Italian organization called the International Enterprise for Research Financing, which supports potentially lucrative research—alternatives to gasoline and electricity as well as these peculiar discoveries about the blood.
Rigel and the Enterprise represent knowledge and power. Only vision is needed to set them in motion, and this is found in the person of a defrocked Russian priest, Father Averyan, who preaches to a small flock of heretics at his vegetable farm outside Paris. His message is that Judgment Day will be in the hands of the living carrying out the will of God, that the living will resurrect the dead. Once he comes under the influence of the Enterprise, however, his message slightly changes.
“Leave a drop of thy blood,” he preaches, “to be preserved eternally, in expectation of the advent of thy enlightened son, who will learn from the Lord our God how to create that suitable location, so that there the drop of thy blood may build the whole of thee, raise thee anew in the flesh.”
Together the scientist, the capitalist and the visionary form a sect called variously “Sons in Salvation of the Fathers,” “Acolytes of the Resurrection,” “Proselytes to the Judgment Day Truth” and, more simply, “The Clients.” In southern New Hampshire they establish the Judgment Day Archives. Judgment is needed because it is not possible for everyone to be resurrected. There wouldn’t be enough room on earth. Consequently, only certain people will be chosen. Some day, far in the future, a court will be convened and the deserving will be brought back to life, while the failed, the flawed and the futile will be left to their oblivion. For a mere $3000 the faithful can have placed in the vaults of the Archives a specially frozen drop of their blood and a cassette, magnetic or video, containing their testimony: their arguments to this future court as to why they should be resurrected. Despite the price, thousands flock to the Archives from all over the world.
But the Archives are prey to certain dangers. First, there is the greed of the Enterprise. Secondly, there is the frustration of those people who can’t afford $3000. Thirdly, there are others who would like to acquire the Archives’ secrets. For instance, many members of the Communist Central Committee are rather elderly and take a keen interest in the possibility of resurrection. This leads the K.G.B. to kidnap Leida Rigel’s son in order to make her their agent. Will she become the Judas of the sect?
All this would be rather ponderous if the novel weren’t written with great verve and intelligence. Andrei Moscovit is like a juggler trying to keep 10 balls in the air: some fall but the performance is impressive. The jacket copy compares the novel to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. This is hyperbolic; Mr. Moscovit lacks Bulgakov’s discipline, wildness and vision. What he shares with Bulgakov is energy and scope.
The Judgment Day Archives is about many things other than the K.G.B. versus a beautiful hematologist. It is about power and our fear or our mortality. It is about how one preserves a sense of the self in the face of great odds. Late in the book Leida Rigel’s son, now 19 years old, is in the army in northern Russia, where he repairs antiaircraft equipment. He thinks, “The next war would be started not over a piece of disputed land, not by the power brokers of the world, but simply because somewhere or other the revulsion a person felt toward his own life would become so unbearable that it would overcome even the instinct of self-preservation. An intoxicating brew of loathing would begin foaming up in some little man’s insides, and nothing but destruction would be able to damp it down. And if someone considers his own life worthless, how can he be expected to take pity on anyone else?”
Mr. Moscovit uses the complicated machinery of his novel to investigate how we are able to live in a difficult time. Although he never quite brings off this investigation, neither does he fail. What he achieves is a marvelous piece of verbal gymnastics, wonderfully written and gracefully translated by Robert Bowie. The novel could be shorter and better controlled, yet while it often threatens to break free of the author’s grip and escape into chaos, it never actually does. Andre Moscovit is the pseudonym of Igor Efimov, a Russian émigré who lives in New Jersey and is the founder of the Hermitage House Publishing Company. He is the author of 15 books, including novels and works of political philosophy; this is his first work to be translated into English.
What the Geezer Saw
He had nearly finished his “marinated herring, sauce de noix” and was pouring himself a dram glass of lukewarm vodka when she appeared in the restaurant and walked slowly down the central passageway. . . .
Now, if I didn’t know her and if there were nothing between us, he thought, would I freeze the way I did just now, with my glass halfway to my mouth? Would I be staring now, like that Air Force fellow and that gray-haired geezer, and like the waiter, and that old babe with the wig slipping down?
So her shoes weren’t made at the local Skorokhod factory, her dress doesn’t come from Moscowseams, and the handbag obviously travelled across a border or two before it ended up hanging from her shoulder. . . . But are there really so few stylish women running around Moscow? . . . She played her role well, came up by a circuitous route, asked if the seat were taken, sat down with an independent air, and stuck her nose in the menu.
From The Judgment Day Archives
Stephen Dobyns, a poet and novelist, is the author most recently of Saratoga Bestiary, a mystery novel to be published later this year.