The Many Voices of “We”

  • onOctober 30, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byAnatoli Kim

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 paragraph, and even within one sentence, blur the lines between the distinction between the “I”s and the collective “we.” And as the lines continue to fade and scatter, the “I”s and the collective “we” merge into a single entity. Such ambiguity creates a narrative paradox, resulting in a sense of there being instead one third-person narrator.

In the end, even though he has the special ability to transform himself into different beings, the anonymous hero kills the beast within himself—the Squirrel—and loses his special powers altogether. Considering how the earliest memories of the nameless protagonist are about squirrels rather than his mother, and that whenever he tries to think of her, he can only picture squirrels, the murder of the Squirrel is reminiscent of the story of Cain and Abel. By freeing himself from his transformative state as a beast, a mistake that was made during the creation of the world, the anonymous man finally chooses to live the life of a human being, and as a result his voice is joined with the voices of the other “I”s into a collective one that is “ours.” In the epilogue, “we” speak, “So if at this moment there occurs the miracle of our spiritual unity, that would be the doing of the honorable Squirrel who, taking advice from the spirit of his forest, correctly guessed the true nature of human beings. That is, we had existed, still exist, and will go on existing.”

The “we” mentioned here refers to the accumulated positive energy that results of the spiritual activities of human beings. In an interview that took place in Moscow in 1986, Anatoli Kim stated that he bases his philosophy on “the pursuit or establishment of an image of a person of the future.” He also emphasized that “a person of the future is not superhuman, but rather is someone who is infinitely good, and today does not exist as an entire entity but only in bits and pieces, and therefore the best qualities of human beings must be joined together for such a person to emerge. For human beings, goodness means freedom from the ego, and thereby accomplishing a greater life.” 



by Jung Cheol-hoon

Poet and Novelist