The Many Voices of “We”

       Anatoli Kim’s 1984 controversial novel The Squirrel, subtitled a “roman-skazka,” or “novel-folktale,” uses an East Asian metamorphoses myth as a motif to reveal the inner nature of human beings as well as a glimpse into the Soviet art world. At the time of its release, the chairman of the Union of Soviet Writers died after collapsing during a speech criticizing the novel, thus bringing even greater fame to Kim in the West.

What is unusual about this story is that there appears a succession of first-person narrators, who all study art in college, including Innokentij Lupetin, Georgij Aznauran, Dmitrij Yakutim, and an anonymous hero who calls himself “the Squirrel.” The novel starts out with “I” being the Squirrel, who was orphaned during the Korean War, raised outside his homeland by adoptive parents in Sakhalin, and now attending an art college in Moscow. Then the narrator transforms into his three friends: Innokentij, Georgij, and Dimitrij. The “I” changes abruptly into another “I” without notice. The subject is always “I” yet the thoughts of “I” move between Innokentij, Georgij, and Dimitrij. The narrator sees the multiple first-person narrators as the result of “a global error that occurred when the world was first created” as well as “a grave mistake that was made when the walls of the human world were being built.”

The atmosphere of chaos that is created by the multiple first-person narrators also serves as a device to emphasize the collective title “us” or “we” that is written in bold type throughout the novel. That is, the use of “we” indicates either their collective existence, or the consciousness inherent in their collective existence. However, when the narrator shifts to the perspective of Georgij, it is uncertain whether the voice is actually still that of the Squirrel mimicking his friend Georgij, or if the mic has in fact been passed on to Georgij, summonned to the stage by the Squirrel, who has finished his monologue and is now absent. In other words, the different “I”s that appear throughout the story, sometimes changing voices in a single paragra...