August 2014

Rebecca Silber


The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

Based partly on her own family history and the life of a grandfather she never met, Vanessa Manko's debut novel, The Invention of Exile, tells the painful and intimate story of the life of one man, Austin Voronkov. Austin, born Ustin, is a Russian immigrant unjustly exiled from Connecticut during the Palmer Raids in the early 1920s. Austin's story is one of loneliness, frustration, heartbreak, and madness. Despite these themes, The Invention of Exile is not a gloomy read. Manko's writing twists and turns around the world and back and forth through time with delightful ease.

The Invention of Exile begins in 1913 with Austin's arrival to the United States from Russia. He initially works at the Remington Arms Company and later for the Hitchcock Gas Engine Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. With an engineering background and a passion for drafting, Austin moves through the ranks professionally. When he isn't spending evenings attending Union of Russian Workers lectures, Austin is passionately drafting ideas and inventions in the crowded boarding house he shares with other immigrants.

Eventually, Austin is able to move out of the boarding house and rents a room in a nearby home. It is there that he falls in love with Julia, an American citizen, and one of his landlady's daughters. Julia and Austin meet daily at a park after work, keeping their relationship a secret from Julia's mother. Just when his work life and his personal life seem to be going well, Austin's good fortune is ended by the Red Scare. During this time of fear of communism in America, Austin is wrongly suspected of anarchism and quickly deported. Together, he and Julia flee to Russia, and arrive to more bleakness -- the Russian Civil War. Eventually, and three children later, the couple crosses the ocean again, this time ending up in Mexico, a place that is as near to the United States as they can get at the time. After some time spent together in Mexico, and with the promise that Austin will be able to follow in a couple months, Julia and the children are able to return to America in 1934.

Two months turns into years of separation. Julia and Austin write letters to each other constantly while each works diligently attempting to get Austin allowed back into America. Julia writes letters to various government offices. Austin, who has since moved to Mexico City, works on his inventions, sending drawings to the US Patent Office, believing that his mind is his ticket back into the United States, and back to his family.

The main story in The Invention of Exile is that of Austin's life in Mexico City. Because of his dark Russian looks, and tan skin, Austin is often mistaken for a Mexican -- superficially, he appears to fit right in. He has a decent life; he runs a busy repair shop and becomes friendly with Anarose, a sweet woman who enjoys spending time with him. Despite all of this, Austin never gives up his desperate attempts to reunite with Julia and his children. Fourteen years pass by and Austin becomes more and more preoccupied with becoming a US citizen, eventually driven to a sort of obsessive madness. His inventions and his letters become a self-made barrier between the rest of the world and him; they take over all of his thoughts and actions. Austin's mental preoccupation reaches a head shaking extreme when the reader first realizes that an FBI agent who at first seems like someone who actually is following Austin, is really an image conjured up by his own madness. In regards to his inventions and drawings, the "agent" tells Austin "it's like building a fortress only to realize you aren't protecting yourself from anything, you've simply locked yourself inside." Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and red tape that prevent him from returning to America continue to make it impossible for Austin to feel complete. A bartender refers to him as "the inventor who cannot invent himself out of Mexico."

Austin does ponder staying in Mexico City and giving up, but admirably feels in his heart that that would be the deepest betrayal to Julia. The thing that may be somewhat hard for modern readers to fathom is that Austin lives in a time when the United States-Mexico border is not as patrolled as it is today. People tell him continuously that it is easy enough to cross, but Austin feels that he must get to the other side legally, feeling that "he had not crossed the ocean twice to end his days with ice and pickax, languishing in a labor camp."

Through Austin's never-ending frustrations, Manko examines the pull of love, family, and sense of belonging. She also examines the notion of destiny, and how much of a person's life is under his own control versus how much is left to outside control. Manko's writing style is full of figures of speech, focusing on relatively spectacular personification. At the beginning of the novel, I was wowed by them all, making note of my favorites, one of them: "Up ahead the waiting room is full and appears to breathe from the collective inhalations and exhalations of uncertain men and women." However, their specialness does wear off about halfway through the book when they become common enough to blend right in, perhaps even becoming a little distracting. Aside from this, Manko writes easily, beckoning the reader to keep reading, and to keep hoping that Austin will at last conquer his own prison, as well as the governmental challenges he has used up so much energy to fight.

In The Invention of Exile, Manko has taken a family story that she knew little about, and successfully rendered it in prose, with the assistance of her own family albums and retellings. The life of Austin Voronkov, a fictionalized character, is both incredibly heart wrenching and incredibly inspiring. Manko gives her readers a gift by writing with grace, allowing them to focus on Austin's plight and to feel his longing.

The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko
Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-1594205880
304 pages