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....