In the midst of so much gloom, a little happy news out of Ukraine: Yelena Akhtiorskaya can’t resolve the separatist crisis or repel Vladimir Putin, but this 28-year-old writer from Odessa subordinates the violence of nations for a moment and offers the balm of laughter. Her first novel is equal parts borscht stew and Borscht Belt, an immigration comedy that can’t tell whether it’s leaving or coming to America.
For a country of great comics, we could still use more comic novels, so it’s encouraging to see free trade at work here. Like the Russian-born writer Gary Shteyngart, Akhtiorskaya was raised in the United States, but her prose retains a Slavic accent and a sense of humor pickled in Eastern European endurance.
The Nasmertovs, the family at the center of Panic in a Suitcase, have been in Brooklyn for 715 days. “They were still counting,” the narrator notes, “though it was getting less clear to what end.”
Three generations of them arrived in 1991, full of hope, ready to be dazzled by the New World. But instead, “they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination.”
This is the great immigrant story drained of its inspirational hype. Still clinging tenuously to Odessa, the Nasmertovs experience the American Dream on Ambien — a groggy sleepwalk through one surreal absurdity after another. Doctors and computer programmers back in Ukraine, these family members — blessed only with “a reserve of relentless, pestering doubt” — find themselves in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at the bottom of a stagnant economy, “decorating lamp shades with beads.”
Not that their new home is all bad. “There were undeniable charms,” Akhtiorskaya writes, “for example the little grandmas selling prescription pills and old furs on the corner, the physics professor with his pile of used watches, the open-air concerts by ardent if not expert musicians.”
Written as a comic corrective to those dynamic rags-to-riches tales, Panic in a Suitcase is skimpy on plot. (You can almost hear the long-suffering Nasmertovs yelling, “ Plot? You want plot? Go to Los Angeles!”) In place of some carefully developing story, Akhtiorskaya delivers a series of scenes and irresistibly grotesque character studies.
Esther, the Jewish matriarch of the family, is “equipped with a top-of-the-line primal-mother tool kit, with which she could produce a week’s worth of meals from iron shavings, lint, and maybe a wilted head of cabbage, use a threadbare curtain to dress her family (distant cousins included if need be), cure the common cold and any other malady non-emetic in nature (puking elicited no sympathy), and get her family out of a disaster without a scratch.”
Her daughter, Marina, works as a cleaning lady for wealthy Russian immigrants because, she notes bitterly, “Life reserved its most pungent humor for those special enough to get the joke.” Chain-smoking, angry and shocked at the slovenliness of her clients, Marina finds that she’s frequently “unable to summon the Cinderella sensation, the famous-actress delusions, the good-for-my-biopic mood.”
And there’s a whole menagerie of more bizarre side characters, described in deadpan, outrageous ways. The hostess at a party has a face “she’d borrowed from one of the nocturnal animals kept in special enclosures at the zoo,” Akhtiorskaya writes. “Women like her seem to always be squatting.” Marina’s boss has eyes “like neglected goldfish bowls, the water unchanged for months.”
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Another “looked as if odd parts of her needed blotting at regular intervals, as if she had to sleep wrapped in a giant paper towel, or not so giant, as she was a tiny woman with no shoulders, just minute protuberances on either side of her neck that should’ve been pushed back in.” One wonders if Akhtiorskaya hasn’t descended from some unacknowledged Russian branch of Kingsley Amis’ family.
These characters and others revolve around Pasha, the great poet of Odessa and the favorite son of the Nasmertov family. “Neglectful, self-involved, preoccupied” Pasha — who always looks “like he’d barely escaped a house fire” — is a classic literary egomaniac, and he offers Akhtiorskaya the chance to stretch out the full breadth of her satiric wit.
In the first section of the novel, he comes to Brooklyn to visit his family, a tiny hook on which Akhtiorskaya hangs several deliciously ridiculous episodes.
We follow Pasha to a disastrous afternoon on the beach, where he becomes “separated from his swimming trunks.” We watch Pasha mingling with old literary rivals now pretending to be successful Americans, and there’s a family vacation in which he and his father lose an oar while canoeing and remain “circling in one spot as if caught in a slow-motion tornado.”
The second half of the novel, set 15 years later, allows Akhtiorskaya to gauge the economic and cultural progress — that is, none — back in the Old Country.
Pasha’s once crabby niece travels from Brooklyn to Odessa, “the land of ambiguous lung disease.” Her uncle, now the greatest poet in Ukraine, has stubbornly hung on through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of his friends. He’s got a new wife, a servile, always naked woman who worships him, which is what every great poet deserves. But that’s not enough to protect him from “a city, a nation, a society, perhaps a whole culture in decay.” In this wry deconstruction of the myth of progress, the challenge of emigrating is no greater than the challenge of remaining behind.
Akhtiorskaya’s genius is her ability to throw off observations that sound — if they weren’t so witty — like lines from a folktale. Upon her arrival in Odessa, for instance, Pasha’s niece is offered a strange drink, “a syrup made from the fur of an old grizzly, cooked up in a cauldron on the outskirts of town by a lady who mixed cat food into everything she touched and blotted the sores of her ankles with cotton balls that got stuck under her fingernails only to fall into the caldron that had to stand on the open flame for many a day and be constantly stirred, the last ingredient being a mysterious powder responsible for the torturous effect.”
How much better — and funnier — the world would be if we could just let Gary Shteyngart and Yelena Akhtiorskaya drink that syrup and work out the troubles between our native lands.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.