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[110] Envy – Yuri Olesha

envy.jpg“Your face is suspended, motionless in the mirror, it alone has natural forms, it alone is a particle left over from the regular world, while everything else has collapsed, changed and taken on a new regularity that you just can’t master, even after standing a whole hour in front of the mirror, where your face looks like its in a tropical garden. The vegetation is too green, the sky too blue.”

From the start, from that delightful rhapsody in the loo and the gradual widening of a narrative vision that is fueled by petty sarcastic mutterings, Envy carries like a social satire of which the object is vague. It opens with one Nikolai Kavalerov, wretched and self-loathing, distantly evoking the Underground Man, observing the gross habits of his benefactor, Andrei Babichev, a model Soviet citizen who is also the director of the Food Industry Trust. Babichev has devised a 35-kopek sausage and intends to build a giant communal dining hall, to be called Two Bits. He has picked up Kavalerov on the street after he is thrown out of a saloon. Hence begins this eerily funny satire of how Babichev’s go-getting enterprises mean to accommodate revolutionary politics and the new communal and mechanized way of life.

Kavalerov chances to meet Andrei’s brother Ivan, who is just as idle and malcontent, and leads an underground political movement whose goal is the preservation of human emotions–pity, tenderness, pride, jealousy, and love–all the emotions comprised by the soul of man in the era when the government contrives to communalize personal life, regulate the most ordinary human relations and emotions. Together they conspire to overturn the Two Bits and assassinate Andrei.

While it’s Kavalerov’s shiftlessness and inability to adapt to the optimism of the new age that make him hate Andrei, his alliance with Ivan against the well-greased mechanized institution is meant to be preservational–preserving human instinct from emotional sterility and leveling of the human psyche. Such a social and political body no longer provokes much foreboding at present, but other agents to which we have conformed continue to chip away the root of humanity and eradicate individuality. Electronic mass media bombard out minds, fill our eyes and whisper to our ears, replacing reason with cliches and lies. Globalized mass culture and consumerism place individuals under collective labels. Those who fail to conform become outcast. No doubt we live in a world that is more connected and smaller, but this accountability comes with a heavy price of forfeiting what makes human being human at the first place. When the daily interpersonal interactions and social transactions become so institutionalized and uniform, the only choice (and this is scary) is conformity.

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