Synopsis: Within a current day setting in Russia, with all its difficult economics and “shell shocked” population, a number of diverse individuals relay their lives via an omnipresent narrator in separate yet interrelated chapters. They all live in the same dilapidated building where the plumbing has been non existent for several months. They are coping, but it seems there is nothing they can do about the situation. Most significantly the group experiences a death of one of their fellow residents via suicide. Because the “dead guy” is not buried properly in contravention of the demands of his Muslim tradition, he haunts the others with hilarious, heart wrenching, and smelly results.
Layered within this story are the difficult and sadly comical experiences of each of the individuals. Each leading lives with a shared, conflicted yet accepting, desperation. All with differing perspectives due to varying ethnicity, age, and gender. Each are both thoughtful and dark.
As the characters are developed, the story starts to revolve around several American museum facilitators of “Russian Extraction” who will visit and determine if they are to help the Russian group and their local “handmade” museum. It is a promise of a monetary donation, but as the residents try to meet the Americans’ exacting standards and try and plan out a reasonable way of showing the donators that their museum is worthy of support, that they lead normal and sane lives, havoc ensues.
My Thoughts: The above description of this book unjustly simplifies it, since there is so much more complexity within the book than can be described within three paragraphs. There were so may wonderful examples of complex and unusual word usage. I found myself laughing and amazed. The most fun aspect of the book is the way that the author seamlessly incorporates folktales, knowledge and tradition from each of the respective religious backgrounds. “Magical realism” melded with the reality of life - heartbreaking yet hopeful. The book is a linguistic mix of metaphor and imagery.
Key concepts which I found interesting within the book are the nature of truth and how cultures define what they choose to relay to the population through the media, what they hide, and who it is that decides what is shared. It is here that we see that Russians as indirect by cultural default. But we also see how frustrated and powerless they feel about their country’s conflicts. Here is a wonderful example where the main character Olga struggles with her job of translating for a local newspaper, where she is required to create euphemisms for the public to read:
Through the snow Olga trudged, dimly aware that in faraway places people spoke with purer words of unvarnished meaning. Or maybe not. Maybe at other news agencies in other countries people simply told more palatable lies. And as she rounded the corner and climbed over the remains of the broken stone archway that marked the entrance to the courtyard, she felt despair sliding down her throat, setting up quick residence in her stomach. Language was, after all, just word shaped stains, simply another way to evade and obscure the truth.
As I read, I felt the cultural angst. It was a fascinating glimpse into the Soviet psyche which I now understand is more complex than many of us realize. We find that the country has residents of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian background – all with their generalized terms and stagnant beliefs about themselves and others, not unlike the US or any other country for that matter. Here the author sums up human character via Olga:
Olga wagged her head slowly from side to side. It never ceased to amaze her what the human animal was capable of. What great great acts of generosity and cruelty. And how a human could harbor the inclination for both within the same heart! She wished she could say it was beyond her. But it wasn’t, because she felt it, too: compassion and rage, love and hate. Even good people could – and did – commit acts of cruelty. Even people like Olga. How many times had she wished Afghanistan and everyone in it would simply fall off the map?
There are many other examples in the book which exemplify its wonderful language as well as its important concepts. It is a lovely and complex book which was originally published in Great Britain in 2009. The version I read had language appropriate for the area, and will be changed for the American audience. The quotes reflect the UK version. It did feel like a translation, however I could find no evidence of it being one.
I loved this book, and recommend it for people who enjoy unusual and creative language, metaphor and imagery, slipstream/magical realism, as well as art, art history, and cultural perspectives. I rate it at 4.5 stars. I will be looking for a hard copy of this book for my personal collection and I have also included Gina Ochsner on my list of authors to watch.
Here is a link for an article I recently found regarding the lack of complete information disclosure within Russia - here.