Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees

Grjasnowa, Olga (2012), Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt, Hanser
ISBN 978-3-446-23854-1

[English translation: Grjasnowa, Olga (2014), All Russians Love Birch Trees, Other Press
Translated by Eva Bacon
ISBN 978-1-590-51584-6]

birch3In reading and reviewing books I have certain recurring interests, which may lead to similarities in my introductions to the books I’m discussing. So stop me if you’ve heard this before. But do read on. Because this writer and this book is definitely worth your attention. I have never had a great love for German postwar literature, with a few notable exceptions. I have found, consistently, that between 1945 and 1990. the best literary work in German came from Austria or the GDR, and it’s not particularly close, in my opinion. There is a third group that has produced exciting work for decades and that’s immigrant writers to Germany. Many of the standout immigrant writers are easy to look up if you are so inclined. They have received the Adelbert von Chamisso award, a prize in honor of the German writer who was born in France. The prize is awarded to the best immigrant writer producing their work in German (not necessarily exclusively). Since the GDR group of writers slowly dried or died out (again, with notable exceptions), there has been a bit of a hole to fill. Consistently, that hole has been filled with young immigrant writers. I do feel like many of the best ones do not choose to settle in Germany. In this review I discussed the mysterious attraction of Switzerland to young Romanian writers. Other writers settle in Austria. Still, a few settle in Germany, and of those, there are some truly admirable writers. Some are of Turkish origin, like the spellbinding novelist and playwright Emine Özdamar. A surprisingly large section of writers, however, sprang from the carcass of the former Soviet Union. Artur Becker is one of them. Katja Petrowskaja has won a few prizes last year. And then there’s Olga Grjasnowa. Younger than most of the writers I admire, my god, younger than me, she wrote a debut novel that is unfinished, jumbled, a novel that screams “debut” too often to count. But it’s also a magnificent novel. I I read it twice cover to cover just to really take it in. I have sometimes high expectations of novels dealing with certain topics, and for female Soviet Union emigrés writing about love and loss in Germany, the high water mark is the scintillating and frequently brutal work of Natascha Wodin, whose best novel has been translated into English many years ago and which you should pick up immediately. Olga Grjasnowa manages to write a book that is so deeply suffused with brilliance and talent, with emotion and thinking, with historical ambiguity and emotional clarity, that she promises to eventually be among our best writers. All Russians Love Birch Trees is already one of our best books. Write her name down. You’ll need to remember it.

birchIn just under 300 pages, All Russians Love Birch Trees offers us a story that is attempting a whole lot at once. She doesn’t have the density of writing that, for example, Grigorcea showed in her debut, and so much of it is slightly underdeveloped. Yet at the same time, Grjasnowa has an unteachable knack for understanding how many political, personal and historical issues are interconnected and she offers us these connections with clarity and purpose. It’s hard to describe what kind of book it is, if that requires us to summarize it in a single sentence. That’s due, in part, to the book’s frequent pivots. The book starts out as a story of personal grief in a German hospital and ends up in a field in Israel. Blood, suffering and confusion are the only connections. And we get there from here not with labored cuts and jumps (although these happen occasionally), but through a cohesive sense of how identity works for someone who has to constantly fight to maintain hers. Like Grjasnowa herself, her protagonist Mascha was born in Azerbaijan, fled during the upheavals in that country and settled in Germany. Like the author, Mascha is Jewish and ends up spending some time in Israel. Mascha’s full name is Maria Kogan. If that sounds like a simple name to you – it doesn’t feel that way to some of the German characters in the book, like a doctor early on who says “your last name is a bit complicated – may I call you Maria?”(note: I read the book in German, any quotes are rough translations, not quotes from Eva Bacon’s much more considered work). Grjasnowa herself, with a last name sporting many more syllables, must have had similar problems. That she chooses to have her two-syllable protagonist run into this problem very early points to an important discussion that will re-occur througout the book and that is maybe closest to what I was looking for in terms of what kind of book it is. It’s a book about translation and understanding, and how openness and willingness are important elements in the way to achieving them. On the one hand, you have the Germans who run on pure closed-minded condescension. There’s the doctor who refuses to understand that simple name. There’s a a professor at her university who loves his ideas of multiculturalism and poverty porn, and whose idea of support for someone who appears to be “foreign” is to be condescendingly generous to them. There is a lady from Germany in Israel who jumps at the opportunity to criticise Jews (“If you see the news, it’s quite natural to start hating the Jews”). In contrast to all them is Mascha, who speaks multiple languages and trains to become an interpreter.

birch1If these examples made it seem like the book can be a bit heavy handed, your eyes did not deceive you. Indeed, subtlety is not one of Grjasnowa’s strengths even though she does a great job at undercutting easy readings by interesting juxtapositions. Her main achievement is the way she wove personal and political story into the fabric of the same story. There is, I think, no doubt that the first half of the novel is significantly better than the second. And that’s because that half is not as plot focused. Before she knuckles down and really digs into Mascha’s present life and lets her plot run free, she spends half the book telling us who that woman is and what happened to her. We learn about her German boyfriend, Elias, and how his death devastates her. We learn about her childhood in Azerbaijan and the way it corroded her sense of family and safety and the trauma she suffered there and hid away for years. Grjasnowa makes us understand how cruelty, desire, lust and sadness can be sides of similar coins. There is a small episode early in the book, where she kills a rabbit in an attempt to improvise some pagan ritual to have her boyfriend survive a difficult operation. Before smashing that rabbit’s head with a stone, she speaks a Jewish prayer, asking God to exchange lives. When that fails, she takes things into her own hands. Throughout the book there’s a definite sense of history being both hard on individuals, and kind of malleable, depending on one’s action and view. Grjasnowa’s protagonist does her utmost to fight and battle loss. Her personal and family history is one of devastation and melancholy. Her parents, well educated and with good jobs in Azerbaijan have to settle for alienated (and alienating) poor existences in Germany. Mascha is a driven woman, and her achievements, by all accounts, are considerable, but she is consistently and tragically alienated from her surroundings herself. Trying to find a connection in sexual liaisons with men and women, trying to find accepting communities, all of these are doomed and complicated by Mascha’s thorny sense of pre-determined alienation. She pushes the world away from her at the same time as she longs to be embraced by it. And none of this is helped by the omnipresent bigotry of people around her.

Admittedly, Grjasnowa doesn’t always choose the best way to express these things. Believe it or not, at some point, Mascha looks her mother in the face and says “everything and everyone around me dies.” I am not a supporter of the “show not tell” school of thought, but some young novelists do need to do less telling, especially when the telling is as trite as that. Much less of a cliché is Grjasnowa’s treatment of Jewish issues. Having a Jew travel to Israel to connect to her heritage may seem like something we’ve already seen (too) many times, but Grjasnowa’s book is very explicitly a German novel written by someone from Germany in German. Grjasnowa uses contrasts judiciously, but she is particularly interesting when she shows how Jewishness triggers various German cultural mechanisms, including those of Muslims in Germany. She has ill-informed philosemites in the book who, at the drop of a hat, turn antisemites in later portions of the book, she shows how Germans are involved in Israel itself, and most of all, she shows how her own conflicted heritage leads her to challenge, change and adapt assumptions about herself and the communities she’s a part of. Much of this, while interesting, is not thoroughly worked through in her writing, much of it is more idea than finished literary product, and now and then, she settles for too simple phrases instead of working out her thinking more thoroughly. It is too rarely that we can see in her work, as Bishop said about Hopkins, “a mind thinking” – instead, we see the thoughts in the ideas and tableaux rather than in the actual writing.

514qGj9igGL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_At the same time, her writing is never actually bad, unlike some others, much more praised writers I could think of. It’s frequently inventive and always clean and well considered. Moreover, we are shown an awful lot and it should affect all but the most closed-minded of readers. In fact, the seared and searing emotional core or the book compared well to Natascha Wodin’s masterpiece Einmal Lebt’ Ich, translated into English by Ian Galbraith as Once I Lived, published by Serpent’s Tail and currently tragically out of print. Get yourself a used copy now. Seriously. Wodin’s short but powerful novel, the best book of her absolutely extraordinary literary achievement (I can see at least one more review on this coming up) is a searing hot story of a Soviet immigrant to Germany who struggles to find connection and support in this strange and condescendingly hostile country – all of which isn’t helped by her father’s alienation that has pushed an already cruel man to punish, police and violate his daughter. Published in 1989, this novel and novels like it are the wellspring from which mediocre books like Katerina Poladjan’s deplorable debut feed (I discussed it a bit here). But it has also fed and empowered writers like Grjasnowa, whose sense of sexuality and violence, of immigration and alienation, and especially of the way that being a woman puts you in even more difficult situations than you’d be as a first or second generation immigrant alone, I can’t help but feel to be in Wodin’s debt. That second point, of feminity and how it feeds into the general malaise is interesting. Another topic she brings up, and a topic that Wodin similarly connects (but in a different novel, the strange and melancholy Erfindung einer Liebe) is homosexuality. Grjasnowa is clear on the fact that being a woman, and being gay allows for power to be projected on you in additional ways. There’s a term invented by African American theorists that’s called intersectionality and it describes the way that people are often touched by different vectors of oppression and that this creates a more complex picture. Now, I don’t think Wodin, or Grjasnowa, really, would have all that much patience for this terminology, but both are insistent on looking at the way individuals move through society and note that the path for immigrants is a harder path, and that being a woman – or gay – makes the progress even more difficult.

birch2I will say that, in contrast to Wodin, Grjasnowa’s protagonist is nor mired in a slough of despond. Indeed, while she cannot quite muster Wodin’s formal or linguistic qualities, in some sense, despite the book’s ending, she offers a more confident path. There’s a purpose to Mascha’s sexual misadventures that seems like it would not have been possible to offer in a book published in the 1980s or before (although some female GDR writers would be an exception, possibly). Mascha declines to offer us the suffering and complaints we may have come to expect from a certain kind of narrative. Mascha looks at her losses and moves on, pushing on, trying to deal with an increasingly heavy psychological load, until her troubles finally just take over. Maybe this is Grjasnowa’s greatest achievement in her book: offering us a character that’s both suffused with literary tradition and bucking it at the same time to explore new territory. There’s a lot about this book that’s good and lovely and even sometimes great and I already own her sophomore novel even though I have not had an opportunity to look at it. Purpose, urgency and intelligence are lovely things in fiction and they cover up many flaws. All Russians Love Birch Trees has all three in spades and Olga Grjasnowa is one of the young German novelists I most readily admire. Get this book, but also, get Natascha Wodin’s novel (and maybe bully Serpent’s Tail or the NYRB imprint to get it back into print). That is all.

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7 thoughts on “Olga Grjasnowa: All Russians Love Birch Trees

  1. Well, you’ve sold me on the Wodin novel after all of that. I’ll probably get hold of it in German, since, as you say, it’s really hard to find in English. I am a sucker for the whole immigrant experience. Another book on the topic of immigration (to Switzerland, as political refugees) which I enjoyed recentlly is Irena Brežná: Die undankbare Fremde (you should see the fun she has with diacritical signs and feminine endings of her name, given you commented about the ‘reductionism’ of names above).
    My review below is nowhere near as detailed as yours, though. I do love your close readings and am truly thankful for them, but when do you find the time?
    https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/reading-in-german-the-ungrateful-stranger/

  2. Good review; thank you. “All Russians Love Birch Trees” is a promising debut, and Eva Bacon’s English-language version is mostly transparent, with only occasional stumbling blocks, such as, “The information desk was manned by a nurse…” when the nurse is a female. Otherwise, it’s reads pretty smoothly.

    Speaking of stumbling blocks, cliché is a noun, not an adjective. Writing something like “Much less cliché is Grjasnowa’s treatment…” is like saying “Much less intelligence is Dave’s idea about….” (See, e.g., http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cliche.) “Clichéd” is OK as an adjective, but “trite” is better because it doesn’t snag attention away from the sentence.

    I haven’t read Wodin’s “Once I Lived” but will take a look at it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Thank you for the correction and the nice words on the review. I’m glad you’ll take a look at Wodin’s book. She used to be Wolfgang Hilbig’s lover and her work and his are often in correspondence with one another. It is a shame she has been so neglected recently.

  3. You’re very welcome. And thank -you- for the incredible scope of your reading and reviews. It’s wonderful to find a literary blog that covers so many fine books that aren’t reviewed elsewhere. I’m encouraging every one of my bookish friends to check out your vast archives. Well done!

    • 🙂 I’m blushing. Thank you. And thank you again for the note on language. I do need to apologize for my English. I write these fairly quickly and so mistakes turn up.

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