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Petropolis - Anya Ulinich

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Anya Ulinich / Edition: Reprint / Paperback / 336 Pages / Book is published 2008-03-25 by Penguin Books

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      11.11.2008 13:51
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      A Russian-American coming of age story

      "For a Jew, you sure look like a Negro". This from a well-meaning acquaintance, what Sasha Goldberg usually experiences from her classmates is not so 'nice' but brutal bullying. The notion of PC hasn't yet reached her town, Asbestos2, in central Siberia.

      We get to know Sasha when she's 14 years old, she lives together with her mother, her father defected to America some years before. Mrs Goldberg is a librarian and thus a member of the intelligentsia, she tries to find an adequate activity for her daughter, but ballet, figure-skating or playing the violin are doomed to failure from the beginning; Sasha is chubby, clumsy and free of any talent. The only activity where she's accepted is a drawing class, for the first time in her life she isn't bullied, she even finds a friend there.

      Katia invites her to her dwelling one day, where Sasha gets a peek of her brother and decides to fall in love with him. They see each other daily during her summer hols, not surprisingly, she becomes pregnant. When her daughter Nadia is born, Mrs Goldberg adopts her telling Sasha to consider her as her baby sister henceforth. With a bribe and a trick she succeeds in sending Sasha to an art-school in Moscow, it doesn't take long for the girl to realise that this is not the place for her, so she drops out.

      She can't stay in Moscow, she can't go back to Asbestos2, she'd like to disappear out of her life altogether; by chance she finds the ad of a mail-order bride agency in a newspaper, applies, has her age changed to 21 by a crook in the passport office, and 'gets engaged' to a 38-year-old man from Phoenix, Arizona.

      In reality she's only 16 ½, how can she cope with this situation, alone in a foreign country whose language she doesn't know? Is there any hope for a decent future? We accompany Sasha on her pursuit of happiness until she's 21.

      There's only a limited number of plots in literature, that means we've heard and read the same stories from the beginning of time and will never encounter anything new. Why do we go on reading then? It's the packaging that differs and that keeps us hooked. In Petropolis we have a coming of age plot, I can't prove it but I've got the feeling that most coming of age stories have a male protagonist, by creating not only a girl but a biracial, Jewish one in a non-religious society, the author can be sure of our attention.

      In an interview she compares Sasha with the Russian folklore archetype Ivan the Fool, like he Sasha is naïve, thick-skinned, self-centred, she ignores rules, does everything wrong, follows only her internal moral compass, fights for survival but in the end comes out pure at heart.

      Other topics are the relationship between mothers and daughters; how a child deals with a father who moves away for good; loneliness; love; sex and religion. If you're interested in how people live in other parts of the world and in other political systems, especially in post-Soviet Russia, you'll read about Asbestos2 with interest. Petropolis is also about emigration and immigration, the American way of life and adapting to it.

      The American author Paul Auster wrote: "Books are never going to die. It's impossible...the book doesn't only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is." - meaning that according to your previous knowledge and preconceptions you'll find topics in the book other readers may not react to in the same way as you do. As Petropolis touches many topics, many imaginary individual books will be created out of it.

      You can be sure that what is written about Russia and the United States is authentic, the author Anya Ulinich emigrated with her family from Moscow to Chicago when she was seventeen, she attended the Art Institute in Chicago and now lives in Brooklyn. (Where else, I'm tempted to ask, Brooklyn seems the place in the world with most authors per square miles). She learnt English from scratch, the novel was published when she was 34 years old, I admire how well she can express her thoughts in her second language. An editor can check a text for grammatical mistakes, unidiomatic expressions and tell the author to leave out superfluous waffle (which, sadly, many editors forget), but they can't come up with ideas. Read how we learn about Sasha's pregnancy, "She closed her sketchbook and went to bed, and while she slept a baby girl inside her grew translucent pink fingernails." I find that poetic.

      Petropolis is not lol funny but has an underlying humorous, often satirical tone. It's difficult to put one's finger on how the author creates it. One device is to describe weird things and occurrences the target readers don't know about in a matter-of-fact way without giving any verdict. One example: The family of Sasha's lover live in a concrete half pipe beside the local rubbish dump which they see as an improvement because before they moved into the pipe, they lived in tents. (In Siberia!)

      When Sasha gets to know the products of the American affluent society, there are many opportunities to use this technique, by describing the things in detail Sasha has never seen before they often become ridiculous, even absurd. This is also true when she's taught about her religion, in Russia 'Jew' meant only being a member of an ethnic group, Sasha hasn't the foggiest idea about her belief.

      Anya Ulinich has also found a brill way of conveying the idea that Sasha's mother hasn't got a close relationship with her daughter, she's never called 'Sasha's mother' but always 'Mrs Goldberg', thus creating a distance. Critics have used the adjectives 'tragic-comic' and 'bittersweet' to describe the novel which I find appropriate.

      I'm surprised that the publishing house allowed Anya Ulinich to use the title Petropolis for her debut novel, it's unsnappy and incomprehensible. It's the title of a poem which Sasha's parents both can recite by heart when they meet for the first time showing them that they've found a soul mate. I read about it and can tell you that the poet, Osip Mandelstam, suffered under Stalin and is greatly admired by the Russian intelligentsia. It's a very insidery thing, maybe the author insisted on paying tribute to her first home country.

      All in all I'm impressed by the novel, Ulinich's is a new voice, she gives us a new view of the world we know, be it from our own experience or from our reading matter. I can even forgive her to have inserted Russian words into the text for atmospheric reasons, a reader who doesn't know Russian can't understand them from the context and from the way they're transcribed with Latin letters, they wouldn't know how to pronounce them properly. Here the editor should have intervened.

      Nevertheless: Highly recommended.

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      Penguin Books
      336 pages
      RRP (14 $ ) 8.73 GBP

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