Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Literary Treatment of Russia, Part 2

Beyond the Romanov tragedy and beyond the Soviet Union itself, “the Great Patriotic War” as Russians call World War 2, remains –to this day- at the core of Russianness. Every time the Motherland is in danger, Russians stand as one man and Staline even called back those whom he had not killed but only sent to the Goulag at the end of the 1930s, to fight against the Nazis, appealing to their love for Mother Russia. The narrator in David Chenioff ‘s City of Thieves (who was the author’s grand-father), and whose own father was “purged” by Stalin, explains this : “I have never been much of a patriot. My father would not have allowed such a thing while he lived, and his death insured that his wish was carried out. Piter* commanded far more affection and loyalty from me than the nation as a whole. But that night, running across the unplowed fields of winter wheat, with the Fascist invaders behind us and the dark Russian woods before us, I felt a surge of pure love for my country.”

Amongst the most famous episodes of World War 2 on the Soviet front, the siege of Leningrad may be the horrific climax of what humans can do to each other. David Chenioff’s City of Thieves exposes these atrocities and at the same time manages to keep humor alive. It is a well-known fact that the besieged city’s only chance of survival once the horses, dogs, cats and rats had been eaten was cannibalism. In the especially cold winters of that siege, people started eating the corpses. On some streets, survivors’ gangs even ambushed, slaughtered and cut famished passers-by up into pieces: pieces to be sold, boiled, grilled… eaten. Lev, the orphaned narrator, and Kolya, the young soldier who will become his best friend, take all this in stride and as much as Lev’s encounter with cannibals is as horrific as can be, “Cannibals and Nazis didn't make Kolya nervous, but the threat of embarrassment did-the possibility that a stranger might laugh at the lines he'd written.”  This is a coming of age novel, a story of war and its atrocities, but also a story of friendship and love. Kolya dies of a gunshot wound and as he bleeds to death, he still laughs at the fact that he was shot in the buttocks. His charm and charisma will live forever in the narrator’s memory, allowing him to survive the rest of the war, marry the woman he also met during that frightful episode and move to the United States.

When the Iron Curtain was raised and Communism fell, a new wave of Russian immigrants scattered in Western Europe. Not all were nouveaux riches living the celebrity life on the Riviera. A great majority was fleeing the economic upheaval that followed the end of the Marxist-oriented regime of production. Suddenly old pensioners discovered that their monthly retirement was the equivalent of a mere $130.00; middle-aged professionals realized that their careers would never blossom and younger people foud out that with the end of the authoritarian regime, they were left out with no directions whatsoever except for alcoholism and the drugs brought in by the Afghanistan war. A lot of Jews also fled the broken USSR, able to use their Germanic-sounding names to find refuge away from the rise of anti-Semitism in the new born Russia. Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, is another coming of age novel, of a young Russian Jewish teenager, Sascha Naimann, whose mother moved from Moscow to Berlin, Germany, when she was in elementary school. We know nothing about Sascha’s dad, except that he may have been a famous person. All we know is that Sascha has two siblings from her mom’s second marriage and that her husband, Sascha’s stepfather, violently murdered her and her companion. Vadim is arrested, put in jail but still manages to play games with Sascha’s mind. A young intern journalist interviews him in jail and he pretends that “remorse tears at my heart”. Later on, Vadim dies in jail, in obscure circumstances, stealing Sascha’s vindictive plan: she had intended to kill him herself.

Sascha’s quest for normalcy is encumbered by what makes an immigrant’s life difficult: prejudices (“I’m sick of having to explain everything from scratch (…) how come I speak German so well – ten times better than all the other Russian Germans put together”), loneliness, elders who cannot help because they do not know how to navigate the system or speak the language (“After almost two years here, Maria’s German is limited to about twenty words, things like bus, potato, butter, trash, boil, wash, and fuck you (…). Occasionally she tries to group her vocabulary into sentences. That usually doesn’t go too well. When she’s shopping anywhere but the Russian grocery store, she has to point to whatever she wants (…). I tried for two weeks to help her master the sentence “I only speak Russian”. She carries it around on a slip of paper in her wallet, transcribed phonetically into Cyrillic letters," lack of opportunity which leads the immigrant youth towards crime.

Sascha stands out in her Russian immigrant community, because she is an orphan, because her mother was murdered (and the Russians being superstitious, she is confronted to even more prejudice instead of being surrounded by love and compassion), and because she is really smart. Sascha becomes the bridge between the native Germans and the “Ghetto Russians”. She will meet Volker the editor of the daily paper that published Vadim’s interview and his sickly son, Felix. Her relationship with Volker is one of the troubling elements of the book .Is it pity for Felix or a normal teenager’s attraction that makes her enter into a sexual relationship with him? When she then makes love with Volker, is it an unconscious search for a father figure? And what is this other Volker, the young 24 year old Nationalist Party member she hands to the Russian youth in Broken Glass Park? Is he supposed to be representing the dark side of Volker the editor in chief? Or should the reader take to heart what she says at the beginning of the book: “I hate men”, because in truth all the men in her life have been bastards?

Broken Glass Park is a coup de maître for a first novel, a book that will not leave the reader indifferent. Sascha’s narrative voice brings out all the complex feelings a teenager exhibits: her life experiences may be more dramatic than the average teenager’s but her internal turmoil is the same, alternating between despair, love for her traumatized siblings, sarcastic humor to survive violence and her mom’s death and keeping dreams alive. My own 16 year old daughter (not an avid reader) devoured it in a week, and THAT is proof enough for me.

* Piter: is the nickname Russians gave to Leningrad. Leningrad was originally St Petersburg, then became Petrograd (Russianized version) at the beginning of World War 1, because the original name sounded too Germanic and the German Empire was the enemy. With Communism's personality cult rising, it became Leningrad (after all Lenin started the Revolution there), even though it was ripped off its "capital city" status (Moscow became again the Capital as it had been until Peter the Great). Piter was the affectionate nickname many Peterburgians used rather than the official Leningrad, a subtle way of rebelling against the regime....

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Literary Treatment of Russia: Part One

Russia has fascinated writers from times immemorial.
Voltaire exchanged quite a copious correspondence with Catherine the Great, whom he called the “Semiramis of the North” and whose authoritarian style he celebrated as much as he admired her war on the Turks.
The Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who took to literature and travel to escape scandals, wrote a travelogue in letters, a sort of hybrid of Tocqueville and Montesquieu, called Lettres de Russie. His fascination with the country is comingled with criticism: “Whenever your son is discontented in France, I have a simple remedy: tell him to go to Russia. The journey is beneficial for any foreigner, for whoever has properly experienced that country will be happy to live anywhere else.” He is considered as having more or less predicted the Revolution and beyond: “One day, the sleeping giant will rise and violence end the tyranny of words. Then, equality distraught will summon the old aristocracy in the defense of freedom, only to find that a neglected weapon, raised too late in too idle hands, has lost its strength.”

21st century writers also fall for Russia. The last four books I read gave me an even bigger appreciation of the phenomenon since out of the four authors, two are not Russians: Sam Eastland and James Meek (but Meek has lived in USSR and then the new Russia), David Benioff has a Russian grandfather and the last one, Alina Bronsky, is a Russian “émigré” of the most recent Western Europe-bound immigration wave after the fall of Communism.

Sam Eastland and James Meek tackle the first part of the XX century in USSR. The most fascinating story within Russian history remains the Romanov Drama. Murdered by the Bolsheviks, the Imperial Family laid in the depth of a mining well somewhere outside Ekaterinenburg for decades. Until they were finally unearthed and identified thanks to DNA after the fall of communism, one was never sure of what had really happened to them, especially to the youngest children, Anastasia and the hemophiliac heir to the throne, Alexei Nicolaievitch.

Sam Eastland is of course aware of the latest developments but still manages to keep the reader alert as to what and how it all really happened. His first historical police thriller, The Eye of the Red Tsar, is a page turner, with the unforgettable figure of the Finnish Inspector Pekkala. Incorruptible “Emerald Eye” of the late Nicolai 2, "a man who could not be threatened or beaten or corrupted into surrendering his sense of what was right or wrong", at the beginning of the story - in 1929- Keppala is exiled in the Gulag and is brought back to civilization by a young commissar, on Stalin’s orders. Stalin is the Red Tsar and he only fears one person, Keppala. The structure of the book, with alternating chapters that tell the reader about Keppala’s past as the second son of a Finnish undertaker and as the “Emerald Eye” while the plot develops around a potential survivor of the Ekaterinenburg massacre, makes for an entertaining read. However, I doubt Sam Eastland’s writing style will ever attain the depth and the elegance of Russian author, Boris Akunin, whose heroic policeman Erast Fandorin remains one of my favorites. The problem lies probably in the fact that Sam Eastland does not master Russian Literature and History as much as native Bakunin (whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili.) This latter author's pseudonym pun on celebrated anarchist Bakunin -in his use of the initial B.(for Boris) Akunin- already informs the reader of more delectable literary and culturally connected surprises to come.

In that respect, James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love is a superbly written book, a strong book, a book set in the past – 1919 in USSR, at the time of the Civil War in Siberia- but that is at the same time very contemporary in its writing. The author focuses exclusively on place, characters and storyline. And what a storyline: the convergence of four principal characters, Anna, Samarin, Balashov and Mutz, each with a different point of view, at a time when the world was taking a new shape! Anna “did not believe in new worlds, but she could not help wanting to be with men and women who did.” Samarin, an escaped political prisoner, [calls himself] “the destruction (…) of everything that stands in the way of the happiness of the people who will be born after I'm dead. (…) A manifestation. Of present anger and future love.” The Christian mystic Balashov leads a sect that is seeking paradise on earth through castration and Mutz, a junior officer of the Czech Legion, simply wants to leave Siberia taking Anna with him. I will not reveal all the twists and turns of this fabulous novel, but cannot help but ask myself the following question: what constitutes a people’s act of love? Is it an act of self-sacrifice to protect the living or an act of destruction, annihilation, for the benefit of future generations? I read this book when it was released in 2005 and am still overwhelmed by it. I also just found out that Johnny Depp bought the rights to produce a movie based on the book. I am both anxious to see it and concerned that the cinematographic treatment of this masterpiece may leave out some of its essence.

To be continued: David Benioff, City of Thieves and Alina Bronsky, Broken Glass Park

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flowers of Evil

Baudelaire could not have imagined that I would steal the title of his majestic and wonderful poetry book to write about one of my pet peeves.

Flowers of Evil bother me. To the point of repulsion. I have goose bumps, my skin crawls back, nausea invades me, I cannot breathe and sometimes I even develop an immediate headache. This morning, when I stepped into the medical building where my dentist’s office is, the symptoms flared up. I was not totally awaken and was juggling chapka, gloves, bag, book and coffee mug. I still had my sun glasses on coming into a black marble walled foyer from the sparklingly sunny snow patches. I made my way on automatic pilot into the even darker elevator, not noticing anyone or anything.

On the way out, I had my regular glasses on.  The Flowers of Evil hit me right in the face as soon as I got out of the elevator.

Tall ivy plastic trees, almost unnamable exotic plastic plants, plastic ferns and foliage of sorts. Or should I say dust gatherers, allergy enhancers, BPA releasers, toxic fumes slow producers?

I wonder if anyone has taken up the fight against these Flowers of Evil yet. What purpose do they serve? Beautification?  Interior Decoration? Soothing you into a hypnotic zone before you get your teeth drilled, your breast mammogrammed, your skin cancer removed?  What is their carbon foot print? What is their long term health damage? Where are they made? What about the workers’ health?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ecological Epiphany

Voltaire wrote in Candide: "Il faut cultiver son jardin."

It takes time to understand the core meaning of this sentence. Of course witty Voltaire did not mean it for us to literally dig and plant and weed and harvest our garden, nor did he encourage us to live off the fat of the land. That would be his archnemesis' fashion, le cher Jean-Jacques the philosophizing Tartuffe himself.
But Voltaire's beau mot became my motto as I compared my front and back gardens, took notice of sun and shadow, surveyed the terrain and calculated the optimal sun exposure per day per week per month and per season... all with the aim of becoming a "gentlewoman-farmer", or rather an "urban food-grower."

At heart I am a country girl who is happier when "playing dirty," with soil under my broken fingernails, mud on my toes, and the sun my only cosmetic. Long walks in the woods, observing birds and bears, finding praying mantises, spotting fish jumping out ot the lake or animal tracks, and learning the name of trees and plants bring me the sort of pleasure Teresa of Avila enjoyed in her Ecstasy. In Nature I find peace, I find myself and I find God.

It took me  years to come to terms with this aspect of my personality. Years and a few good books. Maybe it's age after all, or all those Montaigne's Essays we were forced to read and explain when we were in High School, or the perusing of thinkers and writers like Thoreau and his Walden, Rudolf Steiner's The Agriculture Course, Annie Dillard and her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Barbara Kingsolver and her self-sufficient year she describes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and more recently Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemna and In Defense of Food, which I read after screening Food, Inc. Recently I also stumbled upon Wendell Berry's poems and other writings, which may have been just what I needed to finalize my education and who could be considered as a Walden-Steiner combination with an Amish twist and a few other tricks up his sleeve.

If I dig into my youth, I can already detect the first filaments of what my daughter calls "Mom's inner hip-hippie-peacenik-side." Tolstoy was my favorite writer from the moment I read War and Peace.  When I read Anna Karenina, especially Part 3, Chapter 4 in which Levine cuts the hay with a scythe along with the peasants, I became convinced that for the Earth to survive, it would be necessary to put a brake on progress, to slow down instead of to constantly grow. Decrease, not increase. Save, not spend. Make, not buy. I felt like a prophet in the desert for the next 30 years...

My ecological epiphany never left me, although I toned down my enthusiastic declarations of ecological independence and refrained from writing more Constitutions of the United States of the Earth. Somehow, my fellow-citizens and college mates thought I was just a jester, another fool in the realm of dreams, living in the kingdom of Chimera CSA.  Now, they are all joining their own CSAs, brag about the bounty of their weekly basket and the benefits of biodynamic agriculture. I am so happy they finally saw the light that I do not waver my finger at them in an "I-told-you-so" gesture, neither do I claim my 5 minutes of recognition.

But now at almost 50, I can accept my "inner hippie self," I can cheer for my little organic garden and its humongous harvest,  I can relish in my home-made pickled chili peppers, pickled cucumbers, jams and cookies, I can support my CSA which brings my family the biodynamic dairy and animal products I cannot provide. Yet.

Top right: Photo of my garden at the beginning of June 2010
Bottom left: Photo of my first harvest, first week of July 2010.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The King's Speech... A Review of an Oscar Material Movie!

All families keep secrets: bastard children, misalliances, mistresses or mistreatments, dishonor or disease… And no one is immune, as revealed by the very moving film, The King’s Speech which brings out into the open George VI’s debilitating stammer.

The most important moment in the movie comes when “Bertie” (Albert is the first name of the man who will become King George VI) reveals that he was an abused child. Abused by his nanny, Mary Peters; humiliated by his dad and his elder brother (who will abdicate the throne for Nazi sympathizer American divorcee Wallis Simpson), his stammer comes as no surprise and a surprise nonetheless. In the 30s, the wireless broadcast communications became the new means by which politicians addressed the crowds. A stammer, a stutter, a lisp or any form of speech impediment could undo a career. How many movie stars of the early cinema whose voices were never heard had to abandon all hope of pursuing a “talking” career once cinema discovered sound?… But a King could not simply call it quits.

Edward VIII did not in fact abdicate purely for the love of Wallis Simpson. Had the woman not been such an ardent Nazi sympathizer, maybe the Cabinet and the Church of England would have closed their eyes on her twice-divorced status. After all, didn’t King Henry VIII separate from the Catholic Church to divorce and marry… multiple times? George VI had no intention to become a King and was not trained to become one. As the younger brother, extremely shy and with his speech impediment, he was looking towards an ordinary, albeit wealthy and aristocratic, family life. Confronted with unexpected circumstances, he showed great courage as he would later on during World War 2.

Colin Firth plays an admirable and convincing George VI. I was amazed at how he learned the King’s stammer. It must be extremely difficult for an actor to master a stammer when one is not so impaired. But then it is an actor’s job to be able to act…Geoffrey Rush in the part of formidable Ryan Logue who helps George VI is simply brilliant: an Australian “nobody” as the soon-to-be King George VI calls him once, he was not a medical doctor, nor a certified speech therapist. His gift, because that is what it truly was, was to be able to bring out the best in people. WW1 soldiers whom he helped find their voices again after the traumas they endured in the trenches or Bertie/George VI, he considered all men equal in front of adversity. His mix of tongue twisters/breath exercises and yes, psychotherapy, got to the root(s) of the future King’s speechlessness. Both actors will probably be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

David Seidler, the scriptwriter, was also a stutterer when he grew up. He remembers having listened to the King’s slowly enunciated war speeches on the radio while a child in England. The idea of a movie on George VI was always in the back of his mind. He met with Ryan Logue's only surviving son. The project went on hold in the early 1980s when the Queen Mom (George VI's widow) asked him not to go forward while she was still alive. Little did he know he’d have to wait for so long: she lived up to the age of 102!

What strikes the spectator though at the end of the movie is the current Royal Family’s misplaced pride: if this “secret” had been exposed earlier, it would have made the House of Windsor appear more humane, less remote, less imbued with itself, with convention, appearance and history. Maybe they would have done something for Prince Charles’ ears?

The original King's Speech can be found at:

Saturday, January 1, 2011


On this, the first day of Anno Domini 2011:

Resolve in no other order than what comes first to my brain:

- To look at life through a pink lense always and forever
- To get my invalidating lumbar spinal stenosis and left knee sorted out
- To run again even if it means getting a corticoid injection every month
- To acquire US citizenship
- To trust my children
- To encourage my children to become independent
- To support my children's decisions regarding their own life without regret or bitterness
- To read more
- To learn a new language
- TO WRITE and deliver these lines trotting inside of me
- To love unconditionally
- To forgive and not judge
- To make better use of my time and of my hands, cooking, cross-stitching or sketching
- To laugh
- To sing
- To play the piano again
- To learn how to make brioche
- To be in constant and silent prayer
- To get rid of moral and physical clutter
- To live

What is a heart if the flower of love is not growing inside it?

Picture taken at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, November 2010.