Where Are the Faint-Hearted Cravens?
The Past Is Another Country, by Peter Wludyka, New York: Simon & Schuster, 396 pages, $18.95
Peter Wludyka employs a familiar premise in The Past Is Another Country—a future America occupied by the Soviet Union. Sixty years after the nuclear destruction of New York City and the surrender of the United States to the Soviets, a half-Russian, half-American teenage boy discovers the buried memoirs of a Polish hunchback priest who helped and then shot the Marxist priest who led the U.S. disarmament movement.
Alex Nurov, complete with a birthmark à la Gorbachev, must read the manuscript secretively to avoid betrayal. He leads his privileged life as the son of a high party official, flirting with elements of the repressed and poverty-stricken native population while he slowly assimilates the priest's story, written as a book within a book.
He finds many elements of the manuscript baffling. The name Jesus Christ is a puzzle, as is New York City. Of course, he sets out to solve the mystery, and ultimately his detective work leads to his downfall.
Wludyka deserves credit for painting an effectively depressing backdrop of an America colored by ubiquitous socialist shortages, dehumanizing betrayals, and the Communist Party class structure. The book is not science fiction, however, despite the fact that it is set in the future. Technology, if anything, has regressed. Nor is it true fantasy, because the book supposedly extrapolates from present political realities. And therein lies the problem.
Using the relatively near future as a vehicle for political or philosophical speculation is dangerous and difficult, because the transition from now to then must be believable if the rest of the story is to be plausible. Most of the best pedagogic novels, such as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, work by avoiding that problem entirely. On the other hand, Tom Clancy's Red Star Rising and John Hackett's World War III work because they stick strictly to the probable.
A book that asks the reader to take its projections literally, or at least seriously, must employ authentic, historically realistic mechanisms. If it does not, the credibility of the entire story is called into doubt.
The scenario of American subjugation in The Past Is Another Country asks for altogether too much suspension of disbelief. It is exceedingly improbable that the United States would dump all its nuclear weapons into the ocean even if the Soviet Union agreed to do the same, simply because there are other nuclear powers in the world. But assuming some massive change in public opinion, one could argue that, after disarmament, the Soviets might intimidate the U.S. government into limp submission. Foolishly, I think, but one could argue it.
One cannot, however, convincingly argue that millions of Americans and their children would not engage in subversion and guerrilla warfare against an occupation army and bureaucracy. It is utterly inconceivable that Americans would cooperate so completely with an invasion force that in only a single generation—in just 60 years—almost all traces of objective history, tradition, and resistance would disappear. In Wludyka's book, opposition to the Soviet takeover is insignificant—confined to some black religious fundamentalists hiding out in remote swamps.
Wludyka posits a world in the very near future, perhaps this decade, in which Americans have turned into faint-hearted cravens who would rather be red than dead. This is and always has been the posture of those who favor the draft—that people can't be trusted to recognize a real threat and act.
Perhaps the author is still upset over opposition to the war in Vietnam, proof to many of American timidity. The author ought to read more history.
At the height of opposition to the war in Vietnam, there were more supporters of that war than there were supporters of U.S. involvement in World War II just 10 days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The history of the American people is ambivalence or opposition toward wars between third parties and berserk rage when palpably threatened. Polls throughout most of 1940, for example, showed that only 10 percent of the public wanted to send troops to Europe. After Pearl Harbor, however, lines outside enlistment centers stretched for blocks, though most Americans were committed only to fighting Japan, not its ally Germany.
The people of tiny, primitive Afghanistan have demonstrated what a committed citizenry can do to the sophisticated Red Army, as the Vietnamese showed the French and Americans. Anyone who thinks that the Soviets would do as well against American guerrillas is out of touch. The Soviet supply lines to Kabul are considerably shorter than those required to fight in Charleston, South Carolina, where this peaceful novel takes place.
Much of Wludyka's book is well-written, especially for a first effort, but his zeal to make the point that disarmament is dangerous and that the Soviets can't be trusted provides no excuse for sloppy thinking that negates any possibility of allegorical veracity. This book will, however, appeal to those who hate Russians more than they love intellectual integrity.
A scenario in which gun control, uncontrolled government spending, and the surrender of property rights to planning and zoning commissions turn the United States into a facsimile of the Soviet Union is much more believable and just as dismal. Regrettably, it's harder to write.
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to USA Today.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Where Are the Faint-Hearted Cravens?".