Monday, August 21, 2006

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

I had wondered how I was even going to begin to talk about this book, with its very strange hero and plot that doesn't go very far and its made up country. Then I read a piece in the New York Times and I had my "in". The article is about the break up of the former Soviet Union, which resulted in countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan striking out on their own. One little problem has arisen - within these new countries, there are little enclaves which have refused to go with the times, want to still be part of Russia. So, what they have done is to declare themselves as independent of Georgia or whatever, and make some claim to be a country in their own right, but heavily dependent upon Russia. Places like Abhkazia and Transnistria. Places on the Caspian sea, where Russians have traditionally taken their holidays. All is not sweetness and light for these places - they have tended to find themselves engaged in civil war and tenuous ceasefires. They also tend to be somewhat lawless, playgrounds for fugitives, marketeers and terrorists.

Absurdistan could easily be one such place. It had been Russian, but now Ukrainians, Jews, Moslems, Christians, Americans, Iranians and Armenians feature strongly, as do its native populations of Sevos and Svani. These two had been the one race ("they're all identical half-witted ignoramuses ... the Cretins of the Cuacasus" according to one fellow) but were divided a couple of centuries ago over some sort of religious conflict. Now, the country is segregated into four divisions - the International Terrace, with its multi-national business enterprises; the Svani Terrace where the major business seems to be a used-remote-control market; then on the beachfront, the Sevo Terrace where the ruling class lived. The fourth group of people are the liqorice allsorts who live in the back of beyond.

Now, the big attraction of Absurdistan is its oil - the Russians drew heavily on it when they were in charge, and now the Americans (in the shape of the Halliburton company) want what is left. The actual people of Absurdistan want to survive - one plan they have is to manufacture a war, in order to attract international attention to their plight, bring in aid, bring in US military investment. Unfortunately, their manufactured war gets just a little too real for comfort.

It all sounds a bit serious, and I don't doubt that Shteyngart had a serious intent in writing this novel: he at one point suggests there may not be very much different between Absurdistan and Iraq, and also comments that Absurdistan is as much a time, a post 9/11 time, as a place.. At the same time, however, he provides a lot of fun for readers of the novel. For a start, there is our unlikely hero, one Misha Vainberg. He is the 1238th richest man in Russia, an enormous physical bulk with a damaged khui (there are many references to his damaged manhood, the result of a botched circumscision forced on him when 18) who trundles through the novel in his vintage Puma tracksuit. He likes to think of himself in terms of Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin ("a holy fool ... surrounded by schemers" - if only he knew!] and Goncharov's Oblomov [on the strength of this book, I tracked down a copy of that for my own reading pleasure]. He calls himself a secular Jew. He went to school in America, not the kind of school which produces top-flight minds, but instead churns out the kind of State Department drones who find themselves in places like Absurdistan with no understanding of the place or its language. In fact, many of Accidental College graduates have gone on to be asparagus farmers.

Misha's dream is to return to the USA, to his memory of the place and to his beloved Rouenna, but he has a problem: his father, "just another Russian gangster ... an antisocial personality with limited impulse control" according to his Mossad file, killed a man in Oklahoma (Roger Daltrey ["Who?" "Exactly" - sorry, couldn't resist]) and none of his family is allowed back. So, Misha finds himself in Absurdistan as all hell is about to break lose, in some mad scheme to become a fake Belgian citizen. Instead, he gets caught up with the daughter of the main local political family, and the family itself: at one point he finds himself a Minister in its government. There's a scene, when he and Nana first have sex, which I still don't know if it is completely genius or something that might win the bad sex writing contest - its one of those "it is so bad it might be good" sort of passages.

Oh, and there is a running gag: Misha is stuck in Russia and then Absurdistan. Meanwhile, his beloved Rouenna is back in the Bronx, where she is taking a writing class with "Jerry Shteynfarb", author of "The Russian Arriveste's Hand Job or something of the sort". [Gary Shteyhart's first novel is the Russian Debutante's Handbook.] Misha's biggest fear is that "Jerry" will take his woman off him: sure enough, he does, with the promise that he'll make Rouenna into a writing star. Now, we see her various emails through the course of the book, and if "Gary" is teaching her anything, it sure as hell isn't how to write.

I think it is pretty obvious from the title that the intent here was to point at the absurdity inherent in modern life: Shteyngart doesn't really spare anyone. And yet, I think we have to see this book as proclaiming a stubborn belief in love, even when that which we love exasperates us.


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