the contextual life

thoughts without borders

judging a book by its cover :: the russian dreambook

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it was irresistible: the deep blue sky, fading ever so slightly as it reached the bulbous outline of a cartoonish russian town, presumably covered in snow; the tops of the orthodox churches painted in pale orange and yellow; the whimsical cursive letters spelling out a curious title. with just one glance, gina ochsner’s debut novel, the russian dreambook of colour & flight, found its way into my hands and didn’t leave until i gave it to the cashier.

russophiles and modern day fairy tale enthusiasts rejoice! the book lives up to its packaging—and in fact, the two are nearly inseparable in tone.

the inhabitants of this story, a ragtag group of tenants living in a dilapidated apartment building in Perm, a western city in Russia, will worm their quirky way into your heart.

the russian dreambook can be read as middlebrow literary fiction: enjoyable and smart but easy on the brain after a long day of work. it can also be taken a little further and explored for its profile of russia’s multicultural makeup, tortured history, and lagging present. the decades of misrule and mistreatment are on full display.

the workers go without pay–or as olga, the jewish resident who works as a news translator, says, when speaking both of her employer, the red star, and the culture as a whole, “they pretend to pay, we pretend to work.” she, like many other wives, lost her husband in the russian war against afghanistan; but because it would mar the country’s leaders, the dead often went uncounted and the next of kin unnotified. her son, yuri, possibly the most broken down of the bunch, thought he was a fish and wore a space helmet for solace.

winter is in full force and the tenants are facing some hard times. mircha, the building’s one-armed war-veteran, has just jumped off the roof to his death and without the help of the state, and the ground being too frozen to dig a grave, he’s kept on ice in the yard until warmer weather comes. but, as the superstitious know—and there are plenty of them in this downtrodden group—the dead left unburied haunt the living, often at inopportune times.

“The problem with the dead was that they live to unfix what others had fixed, to undo what others were trying to do. The dead untied knots. They climbed staircases the wrong way and, in so doing, turned time backwards on a clock,” says azade, mircha’s widow, and a muslim from central asia whose family had been brought to Perm by way of an unfortunate relocation mishap. she’s the first to notice his ripening odor and undead presence. soon he’s walking and talking, trying to impart his newfound wisdom. mircha was an alcoholic and an abusive husband in life but in death, he’s a rehabilitated philosopher.

yuri is able to see him too and, from time to time, receives some fatherly advice. meanwhile, the dead man’s adoptive son, vitek, a mafioso-wannabe and leader of the feral children who live in a garbage heap outside the apartment complex, is oblivious to any attempt at connection.

gina ochsner

panic doesn’t set in, however, until tanya, the slightly overweight granddaughter of lukeria, a xenophobic holdover who shouts anti-semitic slurs out the window, is saddled with the task of winning grant money for the scrappy, subpar All-Russian, All-Cosmopolitan Museum where she, yuri, and yuri’s live-in girlfriend, zoya, work. if chosen for consideration by The Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification, the committee would stay with tanya in her home. it soon comes to pass that the americans are on their way—and mircha still has not been buried.

in an uncomfortable scene, the tour of the museum, it becomes painfully obvious that the exhibits can hardly be called art: most of the religious-themed pieces have been cobbled together by tanya using makeup, chewing gum, and candy wrappers. “They had wanted to see a museum that resembled those on postcards, a museum like the Hermitage with perhaps a miniature golden carriage and maybe even a Fabergé egg. They wanted wide rolling rivers and green fields, or maybe yellow ones of mustard or wheat, sunshine and violins. They had wanted . . . to see a Russia that existed only in dreams their grandmothers dreamed and perhaps had never existed at any time — ever,” tanya realized.

lulled by the fanciful surroundings and bizarre happenings—and charmed by the lamentable characters—it’s not until that moment, when the americans arrive with their western elitism and overstuffed luggage, that the desperation and darkness of life in the small community becomes shockingly clear.

reading ochsner’s clever folk-inspired tale is like watching a season of MTV’s Real World—done russian-style. i hope to see more from her.

::[dig deeper]::
visit gina’s website
read a great in-depth interview with gina on bookmunch


Written by Gabrielle

February 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

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  1. […] few weeks ago i’d written a review of the russian dreambook of colour & flight by author gina ochsner. here’s an interview i […]

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