– Translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter – e-book
Read from August 29th to 31st 2016
I definitely have to report it J: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Funeral Party has stolen my dream – my nightmare, that is. I think I’ve already talked about it elsewhere, this recurrent dream I have in which I find myself stranded in Romania with no money and no job (although sometimes I dream that my former school took pity on me and employed me again), freaking out about my bills, my job and my home in Quebec. Over the years I’ve often dismissed this dream of mine as the embodiment of some lack of security about my position and role in my adoptive country that haunts my subconscious. I had to read Ludmila Ulitskaia’s book to learn on one hand that my nightmare was not unusual nor singular and on the other hand that another interpretation, subtler and cleverer could be found: a deep nostalgia of the immigrant for his/ her native land combined with the fear of the same nostalgia – fear to succumb it, that is:
For a long time Russia had existed for them only in their dreams. They all dreamed the same dream, but with different variations. (…) The basic structure of the dream was as follows: they arrived back to find themselves in a closed building, or a building without doors, or a rubbish-container; or something happened that made it impossible for them to return to America: losing documents or being sent to prison, for instance; one Jew had even seen his dead mother, who had tied him up with a rope.
Anyway, joking aside, I must confess it was my friend Ema who introduced me to Ludmila Ulitskaya (actually my copy of this book is her present), a writer I knew nothing about until then, and my first meeting with her has been really enjoyable. The Funeral Party – her first book translated into English, it seems – has that strange mixture of sarcasm and tenderness, of laughter and sadness, of absurd and poetry all great Russian literature has accustomed us with.
The novella’s main theme is apparently emigration and the uprooting that goes with it (apparently because, as we’ll se, there is another, subtler but equally powerful, entwined with it that concerns the artist). In New York City, in a Manhattan apartment (luckily rented a long time ago when the rent was low and the neighborhood quite ordinary) an artist is dying of a mysterious disease that little by little has liquefied him, transforming him in a rubber doll. Around him are gathered his lovers, his daughter and his friends, and like in a Balzacian story, this is a perfect opportunity for the narrator to get a glimpse of their lives with their more or less successful efforts to integrate in the American society and to adopt the American way of life. As expected, these glimpses reveal some funny or picturesque stories, as they disclose the strange (but so common in all North America) mélange between two worlds, two cultures and many a religion. Here is, as an appropriate example, the delicious description of the language they speak, which reminded me of the Romanian corrupted with so many English and French expressions my friends and I often employ to communicate with each other, and which could be put down to the permanent attempt of one culture to overlap the other:
The new American language came to them gradually in their new émigré milieu and was also instrumental and primitive, and they expressed themselves in a terse, deliberately comical jargon, part-English, part-Russian, part-Yiddish, which took in the most exotic criminal slang and the playful intonations of a Jewish anecdote.
Of course, the language is a consequence of the characters’ wandering on the road to integration, road with bumps each one of them tries (successfully or not) to bypass. Here we have Berman and Fima, two brothers who were doctors in Russia. While Berman managed to pass the exams and had his diploma recognized in the United States, Fima could not learn English better enough to do the same, but even though one is dressed like a “respectable doctor” and the other like a tramp, both live in cheap apartments and eat cheap food because Berman has indebted himself heavily in order to open a private practice. Here we have Valentina, who married a homosexual to escape her country and now teaches Russian at school and has had an affair with the subject of the funeral party, Alik. Here we have Nina, Alik’s wife, beauty in decline, who cannot speak English and became an alcoholic because, one of characters meditates, America is unable to have heavy drinkers, like Russia, only sober or addicted ones. And here we have Alik himself, an artist who has lived in New York like once upon a time in Moscow, without a care, letting his friends in charge of his bills and often his food whenever he was unable to feed his family with his art. Different characters on different roads, they all have in common “this crossed frontier, this crossed, stumbling lifeline, this tearing up of old roots and putting down of new ones in new earth, with its new colours, smells and structures.”
No matter how powerful and picturesque this emigration theme might be, another one gradually insinuates and tends to overwhelm it. Also developed around the dying Alik, it concerns the double condition of the creator – as a man and as an artist. While the man is reduced to rubber, losing little by little the human appearance, the artist becomes stronger and will soon occupy the empty place: “Alik lay flat and rubbery, like an empty hot-water bottle, but his mind was alert…” And indeed, the novella ends with the suggestion of a post-mortem wide recognition of his art, followed by, of course, a battle for succession.
Furthermore, a fine touch in completing the artist’s portrait is the idea that the artist, far from being a citizen of the world, i.e. above nationalism, is the only one capable to keep the soul of his country alive wherever he might go, be it an ineffable country he often rebuilds more as it should be than as it really was:
He had built his Russia around him, a Russia which hadn’t existed for a long time and perhaps never had. He was carefree and irresponsible, people didn’t live like that here, they didn’t live like it anywhere, dammit. How to define this charm, which had captivated even her little girl? He hadn’t done anything special for anyone, yet they would all have gone through fire for him. No, she didn’t understand, she didn’t understand.