May 2014

Daniel Shvartsman

fiction

The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated by Ross Ufberg

Say "Moldova" to a Westerner and what do you get? A likely first reaction is, "what's that?" A second-level response might be, "That's in Russia somewhere, right?" with the next degree identifying it as a country in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Somebody may have read the book that mentioned Moldova was the least happy country in the world, somebody else might be aware that a lot of people leave Moldova (per the CIA factbook, the only countries with a more negative net migration rate are Pacific island countries and Syria), and an English soccer pundit might know enough to associate Moldova with white slave traders and international drug dealers.

Moldova exists in the Western imagination, if it exists at all, as representative of the most drab and hopeless aspects of Eastern Europe.

The good thing about this is that, per Vladimir Lorchenkov's The Good Life Elsewhere, the misunderstanding may be mutual. "He'd go... to a country where the streets are always clean, the people are kind and pleasant, where without having to kill yourself you'd make in a month what you couldn't earn in three years of working the land in Moldova." The "he" is the protagonist, Serafim Boteaznu; the Promised Land (in one of the book's running jokes, whether intentional or not) is Italy.

Inspired by Serafim's dream and the miserable reality of their lives, a dozen poverty-stricken years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, just about everyone in the village of Larga is eager to get away, with Italy looming as the pasta-scented golden land. So, armed with a singular aim and endless ways of reaching the target, the villagers hurl themselves toward that unreachable target. Meanwhile, Lorchenkov profits from the comedy of this pursuit with similar single-mindedness.

Lorchenkov writes himself into several notable, related traditions. There's his willingness to take a joke to its literal, brutal conclusion la Kafka -- chapter two sees Maria, in anguish over her failed effort to reach Italy, hang herself in her backyard at her husband's suggestion since, as he says, "God forbid I snuff the life out of you with my own hands. It'd be a sin. It's better if you'd just snuff it out yourself." There's the whiff of the village fable that Meir Shalev or Marquez traded in, the book bursting with different characters and variations on the core theme. And there's the unsparing sense of morbidity, that grand legacy of Russian literature (this book was written in Russian, despite Lorchenkov's Moldovan heritage): I tallied the aforementioned hanging, another failed suicide, two accidental deaths, one infanticide, and one ordinary murder in the first seventy pages alone.

The Good Life Elsewhere piles on the absurdity one chapter after another. Nave students from Chisinau come to listen to the villagers' tales and imagine they've found a new folk religion, until they realize the villagers are just telling them what they want to hear. A man from a village famed for trafficking in kidneys "their own," Lorchenkov emphasizes -- dies in a botched attempt to replace his kidneys with a pig's, only for it to be revealed he's missing not a kidney but a lung, half his liver, and parts of other vital organs. Meanwhile, to reach Italy the village priest launches multiple Crusades, another village leader assembles a curling team meant to be a Trojan horse to enter Italy, Serafim and his best friend build a flying tractor and, when that gets shot down, a bicycle-powered submarine, and even the President of the country tries to sneak into Italy via a staged plane crash.

This absurdity does wear on the reader after a certain point. The book is not just one theme but basically one joke repeated and repurposed. Some of Lorchenkov's digressions work -- he hits the mark in skewering both the Soviet Union and the EU for offering more hope than actual help -- and others are either not as sharp or too obscure for the foreign reader. While moving the narrative through a wide range of characters does layer the book's humor and satire well, some of those individual layers fall flat -- the story of the Italian consul named Michelangelo Buonarotti goes neither here nor there, for example.

But there are also a few threads running beneath the humor that hold the book together and, perhaps, betray Lorchenkov's bigger message. Italy, it's clear, isn't actually all it's cracked up to be: the characters who finally make it there either do so through death or by literal or spiritual prostitution. The village's old man tries to remind everyone that the real Italy is in themselves, that they can build their own golden land, and he gets burned at the stake for his heresy. And gradually, all abandon the dream of Italy; "Dreams die just like people," Serafim thinks toward the end. It's only at that point, after everyone has renounced hope, that fulfillment comes in the book's last twist of the absurd.

Which isn't to say that one should read The Good Life Elsewhere for a deeper message. Lorchenkov's novel reflects the situation in his home country like a funhouse mirror, making the reader laugh and shudder, often at the same time. Whether the reflection is precise or not, an outsider can't say, but it feels accurate. This may or may not help our understanding of Moldova. But at least, as its citizens try to flee the country, we might at least be able to understand where they're coming from.

The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated by Ross Ufberg
New Vessel Press
ISBN: 978-1939931016
204 pages