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Comrade cowboy
01.26.2007 11:35

madonna_from_russia By Aaron Hamburger

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

Few countries are as rich in their literary heritage as Russia. Any nation would be glad to have among its literary progenitors even one author with the commanding epic scope of Leo Tolstoy, or a darkly prophetic visionary like Fyodor Dostoevsky, or a wise, observant humanitarian like Anton Chekhov. Now throw in Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, Isaac Babel and countless others, and you’ve got an embarrassment of cultural riches that can be matched only by the artistic output of Renaissance Italy.

Then why is it that of all these influences to choose from, so many contemporary Russian writers ranging from enfant terrible Victor Pelevin to Russian-American immigrant Gary Shteyngart seem to have apprenticed themselves to that sui generis oddball Mikhail Bulgakov? (For those who need a quick reminder, Bulgakov was the loopy surrealist who authored “The Master and Margarita,” a novel that features Pontius Pilate and a satanic cat among its protagonists.) Perhaps Bulgakov’s shadow looms large today because surrealism may just be the best fit to capture the rollicking upheavals of Russia’s recent history. Who but a surrealist writer could dream up such characters as red-faced Boris Yeltsin famously doing the twist during his last campaign for president? Or charismatic capitalists like Boris Berezovsky, who seemed to rise and fall as sharply as Internet stocks during the ‘90s dot-com boom in the United States?

Yuri Druzhnikov’s “Madonna From Russia,” a tale of ex-Soviet bigwigs who find themselves on the wrong side of history, fits squarely within the Bulgakov tradition. This novel’s comic elements include a 96-year-old vixen whose sexual charms still prove irresistible to men, an island that magically appears in the Rio Grande during a hurricane and an embittered Russian immigrant to the United States who wants to turn the above-mentioned island into an independent country and is prepared to declare war on the United States to defend its territorial integrity.

Watching all this from the sidelines is the book’s narrator, a mildly cynical Russian emigre who’s now a professor of Russian literature in California. (For what it’s worth, Druzhnikov himself teaches at the University of California at Davis.) This unnamed narrator is drawn seemingly against his will into the mayhem when one of his students, and then one of his colleagues, falls in love with the nonagenarian Lily Bourbon — despite the fact that neither of them speaks Russian and Lily barely speaks any English. The narrator’s ironic running commentary provides a counterpoint of sanity against the insanity, but he’s basically a shadow compared to the book’s strongest character: Lily, the ultimate survivor.

During the Soviet period, Lily slept her way to the top of the literary world. She began by typing manuscripts for the notable writer Andrei Bourbon, had an affair with him, and then, after marrying him, published his work with her name on it. Eventually her reputation eclipsed that of her husband. While Andrei became a literary outcast, Lily worked every angle she could to become a socialist icon, and eventually earned the title of poet laureate for doggerel verse such as: “I want to sing your praises, social-ISM! / Where can a rhyme for this festive word be found? / That rhyme would be — commun-ISM! / That’s where I’d surely like to fly right now.

Now in her late nineties, Lily has arrived in the United States where she expects to continue her career. “For some reason that was incomprehensible and exasperating to Lily Bourbon,” Druzhnikov writes, “people in America continued to speak English despite the fact that she had arrived.” Unhampered by her advanced age or by her inability to understand the language and mores of a new country, Lily storms through the book like a force of nature. She marries, takes on several lovers, works for a brothel, performs the tango with an enviably straight back, and announces her plan to dance with the U.S. president by the time she reaches the age of 100. While Lily’s on the scene, we turn the pages eagerly, wondering what she’ll do or say next.

Lily’s such a dynamo that when she disappears from the narrative, roughly halfway through, our attention lags. Druzhnikov puts Lily’s story on hold to tell us about Khariton “Kharya” Lapidar, a former professor of “scientific communism” in Odessa who’s having trouble adjusting to life as an immigrant in Texas. His nostalgia for the good old days and his inflated sense of self-worth don’t exactly go over well in the land of ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots. However, Kharya’s luck seems to change when, in the aftermath of a hurricane, he discovers an island in the Rio Grande, exactly halfway between the United States and Mexico. He dreams of claiming this territory for a new communist state for Russian immigrants, but needs money to pay for registering the land in his name.

Kharya’s a misguided dreamer in the Don Quixote mold, but he’s also something of a whiner and bore. Druzhnikov attempts to breathe some life into Kharya by giving him grotesque eating habits and a smart mouth. Still, somehow the character’s blustering and flustering can’t quite measure up to Lily’s outlandish scheming and black wit.

Toward the end of the book, Druzhnikov ties his two narrative strands together by bringing back the freshly widowed Lily to marry Kharya. This unlikely duo unites to use her inheritance from her dead American husband to buy the newly formed island in the Rio Grande (now called the Kingdom of Grande-Bravo), and to establish Lily’s reign over it as Queen Lily the First. It’s a relief to see her back in the story, but somehow Lily doesn’t seem quite so vibrant or interesting as before. Her unexplained absence from the narrative creates a longing for her that her return doesn’t fulfill, so the novel ends on a note of disappointment.

Druzhnikov, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize and can count such luminaries as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Heinrich Boll as fans, has a knack for inventive, anarchic narratives and larger-than-life characters. He also knows how to tell a good joke, particularly at the expense of lazy American students. Here he describes the narrator-professor, looking at a sea of sleepy faces in a lecture hall:

“I could tell by some of my students’ eyes that my words were burbling in their ears like bubbles in a boiling kettle or hissing like the surf on the Pacific Ocean not so far away. … One of them half reclined, draping her legs over the back of the chairs in front of her like someone on a gynaecologist’s couch. To my left a young single mother took out her breast and put her nipple into her infant’s mouth. The mother was white, the little baby was black. He made a face, spat it out and squinted his eyes at me: evidently the baby was more interested in the problems of Russian symbolism than he was in milk.”

Though Druzhnikov’s latest book doesn’t all hang together, its sporadic comic rewards in lines like the ones above provide ample entertainment to make it worth reading.

Aaron Hamburger is the author of the short-story collection “The View From Stalin’s Head” and the novel “Faith for Beginners.”

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