The house on the embankment is an apartment building occupied by privileged soviet civil servants. Its inhabitants, however, change regularly, because apparently some fall from grace, disappear and are replaced by new members of the nomenklatura.
This novel is a through and through soviet story, which sheds an ominous light on the reigning living conditions under the heel of a one party system. It evocates a hidden, shapeless, paralyzing fear prompted by a bunch of faceless, but all powerful, apparatchiks. People are deadly afraid to do something `wrong', which could damage the interests of those who live in the upper floor apartments, the invisible rulers.
If you hear those bureaucrats quoting Marx and Lenin, you would think of them as purebred revolutionaries, as builders of a new world, but their essence is petit-bourgeois and pure self-interest. They steal everything they can put their hands on. Their main occupation is to try to settle scores with those who block (ed) their own careers.
The main character in this book is an absolute zero, a rare gift, as he comes to realize it himself. By posing as a complete zero, he has a bright future before him. He hangs his wagon always on the machine of the most powerful members of a group and serves them with spying on and denouncing fellow students. He participates in a plot against one of his professors, notwithstanding the fact that he is engaged to his daughter.
The novel is built as a flashback. The protagonist meets accidentally a former fellow student and friend who became an outcast. Together they remember and reconstruct their eventful `black' past.
It is nearly unbelievable that this stunning story was published in an official literary magazine. Its brilliant structure, its suggestive power, its heavily charged atmosphere, its satirical strength and the cynicism of its `negative' hero makes it the work of a profound and brilliant writer.
This book is one of the highlights of modern Russian literature. A must read.