Zoo: Or, Letters Not About Love Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Author: Viktor Shklovsky

First published: Zoo: Ili, Pisma ne o lyubvi, 1923 (English translation, 1971)

Genre: Novel

Locale: A Russian émigré colony in Berlin

Plot: Epistolary

Time: The 1920's

Viktor Shklovsky (VIHK-tohr SHKLOV-skee), the narrator, a Russian novelist, literary critic, and political émigré living in Berlin after the consolidation of Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union. The narrator is in love with the woman to whom he writes the letters that form the novel; she does not reciprocate the narrator's feelings. She does, however, allow him to write to her as long as he does not write about his love. Because he cannot write what he wishes, he writes about what interests him: the theory of literature; literary friends in Berlin and in Russia whom he has left; descriptions of places; cars and the effect of technology on the world; the contrast between the life of bourgeois Europe, which Alya comes to represent, and the revolutionary culture to which he has become accustomed; and his bitter experience of exile. These topics reveal a man who values talent, wisdom, compassion, and magnanimity. He is ironic, witty, and imaginative, though he says that he is sick of wit and irony. He says that he is “sentimental” because he “takes life seriously.” It gradually becomes clear that the narrator's passion for Alya is not so great as his passion for literature, as she is surely aware. In the last letter, he reveals his deep and enduring patriotism, asking his country to allow him to return home.

Elsa Triolet, also called Alya, a Russian woman and a writer. She has actually written the letters that bear her signature, but much of her characterization comes through Shklovsky's letters to her. She has been married to a Frenchman, André Trio-let; they lived in Tahiti, a description of which (from one of her letters) she turns into a book somewhat later, authenticating her literary talent. The couple has parted, however, with him returning to Paris, her to Berlin. She refuses to love the narrator and says that she is “no femme fatale {but}…Alya, pink and fluffy.” The narrator thinks that she treats men like toys and in letter 11 calls her an “utter woman.” Her attitude toward clothes and buying things, however, leads him to call her “alien.” He identifies her with the consumer-oriented, bourgeois European culture, entirely foreign to the cataclysmic experience of Civil War Russia from which she has escaped. He reasons, therefore, that she cannot understand and love the roughness of Russians with their unpressed pants in contrast to the European men in their tuxedos. In Alya's letter 19, however, she contradicts his characterization of her as alien with her description of her old nurse Stesha, who “loves the male sex,” as a gentle and “completely warm” woman. Alya believes that she herself is like Stesha, whom the narrator realizes is profoundly Russian. The narrator calls Alya a “woman with no vocation,” and she defines herself in letter 16 as “good for nothing.” She has the ability to do many things, but she leaves the possibilities unused, like a package she has bought, brought home, and left unopened. She agrees with the narrator that wherever she goes, she knows “immediately what goes with what and who with whom,” and she knows that she does not go with him. She shows him that he does not know how to write love letters and that he is more interested in his love and his art than in her. This rejection precipitates their break and the narrator's letter asking permission to return to Russia.

Categories: Characters