Imagination beguiles in dystopic Russian debut

Ulinich, Anya: Petropolis. Scribe, 2008. RRP $29.95. ISBN 9780670038190

'Petropolis', by Anya Ulinich As if producing a debut novel with the punch to stop a pugilist in their tracks wasn't enough, author Anya Ulinich manages to do so in a second language.

Such is the verve of the 34-year-old Russian-born, US-based writer. Ulinich's novel Petropolis (taken from a poem by late Russian poet Osip Mandelstam), which charts the life and times of unlikely heroine Sasha Golberg, begins in the depths of a Siberian winter before arcing halfway around the world to a quixotic Arizonian summer.

When we first meet Sasha she's a guileless 14-year-old living among the Eastern Bloc ruins in a town called Asbestos 2 with her still beautiful but slightly demented mother. Despite the old-school melancholy of her surroundings Sasha is no Russian doll. Chubby, ruddy complexioned and with blood of Negritianka running through her veins, Sasha wears her disenfranchisement like a seasoned dissident, much to her mother's chagrin.

A throwback to the pre-Gorbachev intelligencia, Mrs Goldberg clings to her idealism like a person drowning. She is prepared to sacrifice everything to turn her daughter into a good little Soviet, even her wiles, which she stashed away (along with the contraband cognac) after her husband Victor cut himself loose and scampered to America.

At the local art school, where Mrs Goldberg secures Sasha a place, Sasha spies the sleek, surly Alexei, and art and politics soon go by the wayside. As do any thoughts of contraception.

After giving birth to a daughter, who her mother steps in to raise, Sasha finds herself suddenly free of Asbestos 2 and all its shackles. What's a nice Russian girl with no particular aspirations, even fewer rubles to her name and a faint desire to find her father to do? She takes the path of least resistance and signs up as a mail order bride.

Much has been said about the perils of memory in autobiographical-style writing. Whether Ulinich falls victim to this is up for conjecture, yet taking on board her assertion that while she draws from life, her protagonist is a work of fiction, it seems counterproductive to then pick over the bones of the narrative, especially when it shimmers like this:

'Outside, the sun hangs in the gray haze, unmoving, as if it's three in the afternoon. Sasha thinks about Brooklyn's starless darkness, humid summer nights saturated with orange light and ambulance sirens, with the sounds of breaking glass ...'

A successful painter before turning to writing, Ulinich's artistic background informs her work, and before I get carried away by such unbridled talent, the myriad bold ideas don't always hit the mark (lost in translation perhaps?). But I'm beguiled again and again by her masterstroke — her lively, lateral imagination that in turn surprises and subverts:

'Sasha felt sorry for the paintings. Away from the danger and excitement that produced them, they looked misplaced, like a pack of anonymous letters at a thrift store.'

Talk about deconstructing the moment. And yet Ulinich isn't simply showing off. Despite the narrative's clear comic thread and an obvious love of the absurd, her search is for something other than simply our laughter or approval.

From the opening pages of Sasha's fraught relationship with her domineering, distant mother to her journey across America to track down (and fill the absence of) her absconding father, we come to understand what shadows the narrative's beautifully 'perverse lucidity of nostalgia' — the human condition.

The tone may be droll but the subtext is palpable. When it comes to the bonds that tie there's also an element of choking involved. And yet without this thing called family we are all lost. Sure, it's a dystopic view but someone had to write about it, and fortunately for the reader that someone was Anya Ulinich.

Anya Ulinich website

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer. She works as a staff writer for the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry.


Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Petropolis, Anya Ulinich, book review, ISBN 9780670038190



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