Buzz Wexler is a music scout for Comet Audio, she's capable of predicting which band of pimply bozos will be the next international super stars. She's done the job for 25 years and considers herself as simply the best. 25 years, rumours have it that she's due for the Lifetime Achievement Reward. What clouds her pleasant anticipation, however, is that she repeatedly hears allusions to her age from her boss. She's 42 but still a stunner thanks to the miracles surgery, pharmacy and cosmetics can work. Her sell-by date has definitely not arrived yet.
When her boss assigns her to accompany a group of Bulgarian singers 'of a certain age' (meaning from 40 to 65) on a tour through GB and the USA, she's not sure what to make of it. He tries to sell it to her as "World Music is the next big thing", but to her World Music is "the Mojave Desert of Comet Audio. It's Ulan f****** Bator". The CD the singers want to promote has the title 'Singing the Harvest'. Buzz, "Not me. I do cutting edge, not cutting corn".
Yet when she hears the Gorni Grannies sing, she can't but be touched. They never rehearse, one of them starts singing, the others follow. They've done it all their lives and can't understand that there are women who don't sing at all. Don't English women sing when they drive their sheep back to the shed?
The unofficial leader of the group is Lubka, the youngest, who knows a little English from a Berlitz book and snippets of British and American films. Snippets because of the constant power cuts in Bulgaria. Dora has no teeth and no suitcase, she wears all her garments all the time so they can't be stolen. Kichka is a kleptomaniac, she arrives with one suitcase and leaves with three, what isn't nailed to a firm surface in the hotel rooms ends in her luggage. Zveta has a swollen mouth because her husband 'boomfed' her before she left. Stanka is the grandmother of Mafia gangster Stoyko who operates in England and has two bodyguards care for her right from the arrival at Heathrow.
The story of the promotional "tower" is told by Buzz and Olga alternatingly. Olga is "Bulgarian interpret of qualified success" and still a communist hardliner although the days of Chairman Zhivkov are over. Her English is full of exotic mistakes which doesn't hinder her from feeling superior and looking down at the "primitive songsters". "Gorni Grannies make non-advanced music of yesterday year". Olga's observations and her way of handling/violating the English language unmask her indirectly.
The same is true for Buzz albeit in a completely different way. She doesn't only look and behave like a girlie (Olga thinks that she dresses like a 'sex slave'), she also, like, talks so like one. This is ridiculous in itself but becomes more so when the addressees have just come from behind the seven mountains and are incapable of understanding even conventional English.
If Buzz had to accompany elderly American ladies from, say, Backwaterville, there would already be enough opportunities to illustrate the meaning of the term Culture Clash. But as it is, she has to cope with Aliens from another planet! Are the Bulgarian grannies made fun of, ridiculed? Yes, they are, but in a good-natured way. If you're a LOL reader and self-conscious, then I don't advise you to read the book commuting on public transport. For example, Lubka making cheese in socks hanging over the bathtub in her hotel room may make you produce noises drawing your fellow commuters' attention to you and your reading matter. Or the shopping sprees the women go on from day one, hilarious!
Strange as it sounds, Buzz and the Bulgarian grannies influence each other. Buzz who mainly lives on caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, alcohol and pills learns to eat pickles, the women have brought many jars with them - just in case they wouldn't get the food they like. But not only this, she develops a new world view, to be honest, not only because of the grannies but firmly supported by them.
Culture Clashes do exist and there will always remain insurmountable obstacles. What the novel conveys is that deep down there can be empathy, even affection, and that is what counts.
Besides, readers can learn something about life in (post-)socialist Bulgaria, why not broaden one's horizon a bit? Why not take the atlas from the shelf and look where in the world Bulgaria is situated at all? The intention of the novel is not to teach which doesn't mean that the readers can't learn, its intention is to entertain, and entertain it does.
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Beryl "Buzz" Wexler, a successful American record company executive living in London, is elated to receive a phone-call from the organisers of the prestigious Urbies awards telling her that she's going to be given a lifetime achievement award. However, her joy soon turns to despair when her boss puts her on a new assignment; one of the staff in the "World Music" department of the company has been taken ill and the boss needs Beryl to stand in for her, looking after a singing troupe of middle-aged Bulgarian women. Beryl doesn't want to do it: she's too cool for this gig, after all wasn't it Beryl that discovered hit bands like Angry Belgians and Ear Waxx? Reluctantly she agrees to escort the Gorni Grannies first as they tour provincial England, then on to the United States where Beryl promises she'll look in on her elderly father when the tour hits her home town of Pittsburgh.
Hard-drinking, drug-abusing, fashion victim Buzz is appalled when she meets the dowdy Bulgarian ladies whose idea of retail therapy is to go mad in "Poundland", and their equally bizarre interpreter, Olga, who talks incessantly about the good old days under the Communists. To say that Buzz has her work cut out would be an understatement; even Ear Waxx were less trouble than the Gorni Grannies. She discovers that Kichka is a kleptomaniac, and Stanka is the mother of a mafia gangster living in Manchester. But Beryl finds herself warming to Lubka, the self-appointed leader of the Gorni Grannies, who leads a simple life in rural Bulgaria, far removed from the hectic life Beryl lives and before long Lubka and Beryl realise they have more in common than meets the eye.
"Life according to Lubka" is a warm and touching novel hiding behind a façade of pure farce. The trouble is the comedy is pretty gratuitous and I felt that what was an excellent premise was rendered too fantastic by unbelievable characters and too many hilarious scenarios. It may seem petulant to complain that a book is too funny but in this case the novel suffers because of it.
The narration alternates between Buzz, Olga and Lubka and some of it overlaps which allows you to see the same events from different perspectives. It also amplifies the culture clash with comical results. Buzz, who spends hours agonising over what she'll wear to accept her award at the Urbies, is disdainful of the clothes of the Bulgarian ladies but Olga's diary reveals that the "high level interpret" doesn't rate her wardrobe much either "...she does not wear smartsuit of business person but clothes of Western ex slave...Perhaps she did not rise to this position by excellence but only with sex flavours".
Some of the characters are brilliant but not the main players. Considerably she gets a name-check in the title, Lubka is somewhat overshadowed by the formidable Olga, while the character of Buzz has too many contradictions to make her even remotely realistic. I understand the idea that Buzz is being shifted aside to "world music" (clearly where middle-aged record execs go when they've lost their edge) with the implication that she's too old, but at the age of just forty-two the scenario seemed contrived. I think the likes of Kylie and Madonna have proven that age is no restriction in the music industry these days and the idea that Buzz was past her sell-by date didn't work. It was just a convenient means of making her consider her priorities, another aspect of the plot that was poorly tackled. The speed at which Buzz's whole attitude is transformed is way too fast and as a result the second half of the story is rushed and all the threads are tidied up too conveniently.
For me the star of the show is Olga, the officious interpreter who finds herself drawn to Gerry, the tour bus driver who nurses an unhealthy Abba obsession. The mistakes she makes in her diary of the tour are priceless: "Chiff products of King Lynn is seefood, examples cockle, wrinkle and muscle".
I also loved Mal, the young record company junior who comes on tour as Buzz's assistant but ends up doing most of the work himself as Buzz drowns her sorrows at night and spends her days recovering. Mal is excited to be asked to come along and works so hard, only to be delegated more donkey work.
I had initially been drawn to the book because of my love for all things Eastern European but I did feel that there was more fun-poking at Bulgarians that was absolutely necessary. Maybe I was being a little precious but I felt like Laurie Graham was making fun of me too. I laughed and laughed at Olga's mistakes - ironically it's discovered that Lubka speaks just as good English as Olga - but I felt a little bit guilty about doing so. That said, there is a highly comical scene when the group go out for a Chinese meal and read out the mottos from their fortune cookies - "Speak no evil, hear no elvis" - which had me laughing so much I forgot my pangs of guilt altogether.
One aspect I really liked an alternative contrast between Lubka and Olga; just because they are both similarly aged Bulgarian ladies, it doesn't follow that they share the same beliefs. Olga still harks back to the old days at any opportunity while Lubka declares an admiration (like many eastern Europeans I have met) for Ronald Reagan "because he did give us new Bulgaria. He did tell Gorbachev, open this door. Fall down this wall. And it did fall down". It doesn't tackle the subject in any detail or with much gravity but it at least acknowledges the differing views.
The ridiculous names of the bands Buzz is supposed to have discovered made me cringe; they were like something my mother would invent to try to wind me up when I was a teenager. "Who is it this week? Mouldy Pram?" It was details like this that took the story from amusing to corny.
Where Laurie Graham excels is in painting vivid pictures. I could imagine Kichka like a little squirrel hiding in her handbag anything that hadn't been fastened down, and when the ladies refused drinks at the hotel bar but pulled out a bottle of homemade rakia each, I could picture the relief on Buzz's face when she realised she wasn't on tour with a bunch of tee-toallers.
"Life According to Lubka" is a very funny book that could have been better if more focus has been placed on developing the friendship between Lubka and Buzz at a better pace and spending a little less time on the comedic elements, funny as they are. It's guaranteed to raise a smile - the perfect gift for anyone who likes laughing at foreigners (in the nicest way if that's possible). If you enjoyed Marina Lewycka's "A History of Tractors in Ukrainian", this is unlikely to disappoint.