Soviet Hen Coops is the latest bestseller by blockbuster paperbackist Pebblehead, a sweeping and magisterial cross-cultural history of poultry under Communism. On the face of it, this seems an unlikely subject for a book which has been flying off the shelves of airport bookstalls and has, in the past week alone, earned Pebblehead more money in royalties than J K Rowling has had hot dinners. But then, in the hands of the potboilerist, the most unpromising material is handled with such mastery and aplomb that, in places, it reads like the most nerve-wrenching and nail-biting and heart attack-inducing of thrillers.
So I am told, in any case, as I have not yet read it myself. A while ago, I set myself the task of reading the entire Pebblehead canon, to date, in chronological order, and I do not wish to cheat. Thus far I have reached the autumn of 1972 (Swarthy Fiends In Dungeons Grim) and have a couple of hundred titles to get through before I catch up with the latest tome. Thus I have relied on a specially-empanelled panel of readers to report to me their responses to Soviet Hen Coops. In choosing the panel, I was careful to exclude those with expert knowledge either of Soviet Communism or of hens, for Pebblehead is nothing if not a populist, and it is the general reader, and indeed the barely literate halfwit, for whom the bulk of his output is intended.
Initial reactions were overwhelmingly positive, with the panel giving the book an overall rating of “Fantastic!”. Converted into numerals, this worked out as 10 out of 10, though a couple of panel members were keen to go up to 11. As a sample of a detailed critique, I have plucked this from the pile of written reports:
Having never read a Pebblehead book before, or indeed any books at all, I was absolutely riveted to my armchair. Knowing nothing of Russia and its satellite states in the years between 1917 and 1992, the whole Communism thing was new to me, as was the stuff about poultry, for I have never been near a hen coop in my life, suffering as I do from an allergy to bird feathers. At times it was like reading an adventure story, or as I imagine it might be to read an adventure story. I had to grip the arms of my armchair and cling on by my fingertips, because I got so excited I thought I might topple out of it and fall on the floor. And because I was holding on so tight to the armchair I could not at the same time hold the book, so I had to have a sort of makeshift lectern erected in front of me, to rest the book upon, and I had to employ an unpaid intern from a nearby orphanage to turn the pages for me. And turn the pages they did, for this book is a real page turner! If I have one criticism, it is that Pebblehead does not tell us anything whatsoever about the state of hens and hen coops in the immediate pre-Soviet era, so we cannot place the state and circumstances and milieu of the Communist hen in any context.
I should interrupt the critique here to let slip some inside knowledge. I have it on good authority that Pebblehead is currently hard at work, in his so-called chalet o’ prose, on a prequel tentatively entitled Tsarist Hen Coops. Clearly, he did not wish to duplicate his material.
One chapter I found particularly thrilling was that which deals, in spellbinding detail, with the sudden and complete transformation of Cheka hen coops into OGPU hen coops on the sixth of February 1922. The footnote which lists other notable events to happen on the sixth of February, including, in 1958, the Munich Air Disaster, is the best footnote I have ever read. It is true I have only read half a dozen footnotes in toto, the ones in this book, but of those six this one is by far the best.
Another passage which had me gulping for air and requiring urgent medical attention was the part about the creation of Potemkin hen coops designed to pull the wool over the eyes of useful poultry idiots, the hen equivalents of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Reports went back to West European and American hens about the idyllic lives of their Soviet sisters, leading to unrest and kerfuffle in a number of farmyards. I would have liked to learn more about Soviet eggs, but
I am going to interrupt here again, to point out that Pebblehead’s next scheduled blockbuster, when he has finished writing Tsarist Hen Coops, will almost certainly be a fat doorstopper entitled Eggs In The Soviet Union.
Actually, I think we have had quite enough of that readers’ report. I think it is clear from her enthusiasm that yet again Pebblehead has pulled out all the stops and produced a rollicking rollercoaster of a narrative. I just wish I knew how he does it. Day in, day out, he sits there in his Alpine fastness, pipe clenched between his jaws, pounding the keys of that battered Fabiocapello typewriter, which long ago, in 1977, lost its J and K keys and as a result forced on him a complete rethink of his prose style.
Please note that Soviet Hen Coops is entirely devoted to hen coops in the Soviet Union, and nowhere concerns itself with the card game Soviet Hen Coop. My spies tell me that Pebblehead will turn his attention to this exciting pastime once he has bashed out Tsarist Hen Coops and Eggs In The Soviet Union and one or two other books he has in the pipeline. It will certainly be a title to look forward to, not least because Pebblehead himself has been called the king of Soviet Hen Coop players, regularly winning tournaments and having his name engraved over and over and over again on several golden and pewter trophies which he keeps lined up on the mantelpiece in his chalet o’ prose, and dusts with a rag on the rare occasions he can tear himself away from his typewriter.