Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Out of Gogol's "Overcoat": Voinovich's "Fur Hat"

Okay. I admit that “Soviet-era satire” probably sounds, to many readers, like a tired, irrelevant genre these days. But Vladimir Voinovich’s Шапка (The Fur Hat) is a wonderful piece of perestroika-era work that combines light, humorous writing with absurdity and serious insights into how we determine self-worth. I say “we” because, despite the Soviet setting and numerous colorful characters, this novella is about all of us.

The Fur Hat concerns a writer, Efim Rakhlin, who avoids political trouble by focusing his novels on “хорошие люди,” good people, decent people, who wind up in ridiculously difficult adventures in remote locations and become heroes. Rakhlin’s research takes him to the exotic reaches of the Soviet Union, where oil industry workers, cave explorers, and other locals reward him with gifts that decorate his apartment. Things like a taxidermied penguin.

Unfortunately, poor Efim is probably not even quite what we think of as a midlist author so, when the Writers’ Union decides to give each member a fur hat, Efim is disappointed with what the union offers him. Writers with far less output than Efim’s 11 books receive far better fur. The low-level gift incenses Efim so much that his search for what he perceives as justice eventually leads to a man-bites-man episode and a not-so-happy ending.

Why is Efim so unhappy about the low-rent hat? I’m sure symbolism has something to do with it: a hat warms the head, the writer’s most valued asset. More concretely, here’s the second part of a sentence about Efim’s thoughts on Chekhov. It provides a sample of Efim’s opinion of himself (translation is mine):

“…но, читая Чехова, он каждый раз приходил к мысли, что ничего особенного в чеховских писаниях нет, и он, Рахлин, пишет не хуже, а, может быть, даже немного лучше.

“…but reading Chekhov, he came to the conclusion every time that there was nothing special in Chekhov’s writings and that he, Rakhlin, writes no worse, and maybe even a little better.”

Readers familiar with Nikolai Gogol’s story “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”) (previous post) probably already hear echoes of Akakii Akakeivich, the impoverished copy clerk who needs a new winter coat. Several scenes in The Fur Hat resurrected Akakii Akakeivich for me, especially one when Efim walks through light, dry snow like an old man, weighted down by his mood and a briefcase full of his own books about good people. Later, when his condition reaches its nadir, he, a writer, also begins copying, albeit in a different way: writing down, verbatim, what people say around him in a meeting.

The Fur Hat is a short, easy, and (dare I say it?) fun book to read with some very enjoyable set pieces and vivid examples of hypocrisy and human ambition. Voinovich weaves in a lot more, including anti-Semitism, funny names, and relations with the West. What I love most about Voinovich’s writing, though, is that he makes it easy for us – yes, that’s you and I – to laugh at ourselves even as we think “Ouch!” when we recognize bits of ourselves in Rakhlin and his colleagues, and begin to question our own behavior.


  1. Hi Liza,
    I am trying to choose a book for a book club from russian literature.
    American woman what would they like to read? Please help.

  2. Dear anonymous,

    Thank you for your question. People sometimes ask me for book group recommendations... Though it's always difficult to predict what individual readers will enjoy, here are a few suggestions for you, two classic and one contemporary:

    Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or Rudin or Nest of the Gentry. The name of the last one varies in translation, but look for "gentry." I would probably recommend that one most of these three, particularly since there's a beautifully made movie adaptation.

    Lev Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. This isn't one of my personal favorites, but several people have told me they loved reading it in a group. Another plus: there is still all sorts of background available on

    Liudmila Ulitskaya's The Funeral Party or Sonechka. The novella Sonechka is a little odd, but the ending should give a lot to talk about! (A friend from the former Soviet Union and I have talked, for example, about cultural differences in how American women and Russian women see themselves in middle age.) Ulitskaya is very popular, particularly among women.

    I hope these are helpful!