Friday, 17 February 2012

Olga Grjasnowa: Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt

And on the subject of literature with an agenda, here's some I very much enjoyed. Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt is a debut novel by Olga Grjasnowa, a young writer originally from Azerbaijan. Who is lovely, I've met her twice now. Her first-person narrator Maria (Mascha) Kogan is living in Frankfurt with her partner Elias, a photographer who injures his leg and ends up in hospital very early on. Maria is in her mid-twenties and also originally from Baku. She is studying to become an interpreter, a very ambitious student who speaks French, German, Russian, English and Arabic. We learn gradually that her parents are Russian Jews and that the family emigrated to Germany in 1996. Elias’s injury is complicated and his recovery is slow. In one impressive scene, Mascha spots an injured rabbit outside the hospital while Elias is being operated on. Not knowing any prayers, she decides to strike a bargain with God – he can have the rabbit but not Elias. She drops a heavy stone on the animal to smash its skull, a startling scene that characterises Mascha perfectly.

Elias survives and we see more of their relationship. The elephant in the room is Mascha’s trauma over her childhood in Baku. Elias feels hurt because she has never told him why the family left. She does manage to tell him a story – about a seven-year-old child whose father took her to her grandmother’s house. A young woman was shot, falling to the ground at the child’s feet and staining her shoes and her face with her blood. At this point the narrator breaks off and tells the story of the civil war in Azerbaijan, starting from 1987. Territorial dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, demonstrations, pogroms, mass movement of minority Armenians and Azerbaijanis on either side of the border, an outpouring of nationalism, and on 13 January 1990 a pogrom in Baku itself, with members of the new National Front going from house to house and slaughtering Armenians. “My father tugged at my arm to make me hurry up. My grandmother’s house was only three streets away. By the time I got there my childhood was over.”

Russian tanks arrive, war breaks out in Nagorno-Karabakh, a million Azerbaijani refugees from there camping on the streets, gas, electricity and water shortages. The intelligentsia and the mafia leave and the Kogan family desperately seek a way out, remembering their Jewish identity. Some go to Israel and are fired on by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Mascha’s branch opts for Germany, which accepts Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union – even though her grandmother was in a concentration camp and “the ashes are still warm”. Settled outside of Frankfurt, her parents' life revolves around the synagogue, which has a sideline selling kosher wine, and the ex-pat community where Georgian wine is the tipple of choice. Mascha is the rebellious success story of the family. She soon realises that languages are the key to survival in Germany. Speaking good German gains her more respect and better treatment: “Applications were granted according to the thickness of our accents.” 

When Elias dies unexpectedly, Mascha blames herself for not waking up in time to save him. “The Talmud tells us to commemorate the dead. If I’d had it on hand I’d have thrown it in a furnace. But it was in some box or other with my videotape of Schindler’s List.” After an awful funeral, Mascha returns to their flat and withdraws into herself, imagining Elias is coming home at any moment. She somehow manages to take her finals and then sleeps her way into a job with a German foundation in Tel Aviv.
From here on the novel plays out in Israel. Here, the atmosphere is oppressive from the outset. Many Israelis are hostile to Mascha because she speaks Arabic but not Hebrew. The army security team at the airport shoots holes in her laptop, their suspicions alerted by the Arabic characters on the keyboard. Her job is hardly a challenge – translating the odd report on exchange programmes or women’s groups, activities referred to as “Arab-hugging”. She has some contact to her relatives here, Russians leading morose lives barricaded into illegal settlements because they had no idea of the politics when they first arrived. And she becomes sexually involved with a local brother and sister.

Although she had seen Israel as a way out, Mascha feels increasingly pressurised by her personal and political situation. As her mental state spirals downwards, the omnipresent weapons and uniforms remind her of the neighbours killed in Baku. In the end her concerned friends in Germany sign her up for the UN interpreting exam and she hands in her notice after a particularly degrading day at work. But before she leaves, her Israeli lover Tal asks her to accompany her and a group of activists to Ramallah as an interpreter.

In the final section, Mascha enters Palestine with the group but climbs out of a window and goes AWOL in the West Bank, where she meets a wedding photographer who turns out to be a former Hamas fighter. Here too, people are hostile to her: her dress is too short so she must be a whore, but if she wears something longer she’ll look like an Israeli settler and fears she’ll be attacked for that too. The soldiers are even younger than in Israel. The NGOs at every turn seem to her like a new form of colonisation. Appalled by the squalor, Mascha finally loses it at a wedding and wanders the streets again, reminded of her childhood. She thinks back to that traumatic day and we finally hear the whole story.

What’s exciting about the novel is that Olga Grjasnowa really captures a political and personal mood quite common among the younger generation. Mascha and her friends in Germany are close to what we might call post-identity politics. They are sick of being stereotyped as Turks, Arabs, Russians, Jews or even east Germans. They want to lead their own lives free from the expectations of their parents and society – in terms of sexuality and their working lives, where they choose to live, and so on. And yet Mascha ultimately can’t escape the trauma of her personal origins. As such, the book doesn’t offer any easy answers, just as it raises more questions than solutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite the deep sadness and hopelessness that pervade the novel, Grjasnowa has managed to infuse it with subtle and cynical humour. Even at moments of extreme stress, she has an eye for the bizarre – for instance a memorial for a Palestinian “martyr” decorated with a life-sized portrait of the deceased, pointing a machine gun at his own resting place. Or an overly correct German who treats Mascha as the personification of all things Jewish and defends Israel to the hilt, only to crop up in Jerusalem again as a rabid supporter of the Palestinians. Through a large cast of minor characters, Grjasnowa gives us a detailed portrayal of the young generation in Germany and Israel. The language is taut and at times poetic, using some great images. Grjasnowa picks up the motif of the murdered woman to bring us to a satisfactory end in the literary sense, if not the personal one for her character.

I was very affected by the novel. It left me feeling sad but very thoughtful, showed the issue of Israel and Palestine in an unusual light, and highlighted the little-known conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The childhood perspective in the Baku sections contrasts well with the clever, cynical adult narrator. Grjasnowa deliberately avoids many of the clichés that have become expected of “migrant writers” in Germany, such as the use of folkloric elements and loan translations and of course the serving up of simple stereotypes. As such, the novel makes for a more challenging read than many of her immediate contemporaries, putting into practice what a number of writers have been debating in recent years. This is an overtly political book that I hope causes a stir. And a little bird tells me it's going to be available in English at some point too.

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