This is a novel about people who are more like “pieces of sunken ships”, about people who live on the other side of the Berlin wall, about happiness which is impossible, but sometimes comes, and about the all-conquering power of love. It is amusing and sad at the same time, like our life.
The setting is Montreal, the house of the ethnolinguistics professor Richard Dubé and his paralyzed wife Clara, from whom he is not divorced yet, although Clara even had a plastic surgery operation on her breasts, to look good in court. But a rare accident happened – she was paralyzed. Now their house is more like a dormitory. First Natasha appears, an «Afro-American daughter of the Russian people», who loves to eavesdrop and is never seen without her broom. “Natasha brought along two émigré friends without Canadian work permits, Ira and Ira, and the wrestler Vanechka, a boy the size of a child, who worked as a mover at a piano shop. A colonel came to fix something in the house and stayed there. Then the deaf Parmen appeared from somewhere, who hissed in an unpleasant whisper, and always looked to the left when he walked. ”. The professor’s house is filled with people from various ex-post-Communist countries. A real Babylon. “Emigrants are pieces of sunken ships. They were swept ashore by a wave – sometimes people, sometimes woodchips”.
“Ex-Communists went to various offices and met with bureaucrats, like all emigrants. They handed over papers, received papers, and waited and waited. The bureaucrats did not talk to them – perhaps they were not supposed to, or perhaps they did not know how. The residents watched television and listened to the radio – and they didn’t understand anything! So the emigrants lived as if they were on an island – they talked to one another and that was it. Although they had nothing in common but the past, that they disliked”. All they can do is wait and watch: to watch how life goes by, and wait for the chance to jump on the footboard of the train.
All day, the hangers-on drank tea in the professor’s large kitchen, the women all wearing the new dresses of the professor’s paralyzed wife, and listened to Natasha’s tales of love, which were “even better than sex”. Sometimes love took place right in front of their eyes – like at the theater. Professor Dubé’s “brother” Andro suffered fits from time to time: “He stripped naked, climbed up a tree and sang. The women ran into the garden and stared at him with wide-open eyes. For the first time, perhaps, or the last time, they saw a handsome man naked. You could live your whole life without seeing one. Andro sang. The clouds and the birds passed above his head. “My spring, my love…” He stood on the branches, spreading his legs – Montreal sprawled out beneath him, and one of his feet, the right one, had a sock on it.” He truly believed that a person’s soul was contained in their right foot, and that it should always be kept warm. Everyone suffered with Andro and cursed the actress Ekaterina – “she lived in the house for two days and ran away, only her yellow shoes remained. She took away crazy Andro’s heart with her.” Even the paralyzed Clara with her wonderful breasts was unable to be indifferent to Andro’s handsomeness. During the times that he looked after her, while he told her his project for saving humanity, she “ate better and soiled herself more often.”
With incredible laconicism, with literally just a few impressionist brushstrokes, Elena Botchorichvili tells the stories of the inhabitants of this virtual mad house. There is the colonel who is never able to tell his brief story to anyone: “When I served on the southern state border, the sentry shot a person who was walking towards him. And the man was his father…” There is Parmen, whose life was saved by shit: he buried into a pile of it when a Nazi tank was crushing him under its tracks. In breaks between songs, Andro “sat in his room with chubby angels on the ceiling and made little boats out of matches. He put them into bottles, no one knew how. And he gave them away as presents to everyone.” Each person who gave care to Madame Dubé told her their life story. Apart from her husband, who didn’t even know who was living in his house, and why, and sat in the basement for days on end. “He noisily opened and closed the drawers, as if he was looking for something…. He listened to everyone, he listened – and did not reply. He seemed to be close by, but also seemed to be on the other side of the Berlin wall.” He was so caught up in his project to save humanity from wars (“If we believe that we are all part of a whole, of one body, then there will be no more misery of others”) that he does not even notice the people living in his house.
It might be a reminiscent of the films by Kusturica, but here everything is deeper and more complicated, just the way things are in real life. Professsor Dubé, a specialist of rare languages, while on a humanitarian mission to some «ex-post-Communist country», brought back Andro with him – his “twin brother”, who is also a professor, but in a different, no less recondite, field. Perhaps in Andro he hoped to find his second half, who would help him to overcome the split in his own self. Then Ekaterina came along, the one who left the yellow shoes, and supposedly disturbed Andro’s mind. But nothing is what it seems, and an unexpected twist awaits the reader… “What do we know about another person’s love? We all live as if we were on the other side of the Berlin wall”.
Without pathos and theatrical effects, without being didactic and using superfluous words, Elena succeeds in making the reader fall in love with her characters. Her magic realism with a subtle tinge of melancholy, and at the same time an eager thirst for life and happiness, makes critics compare her novels with the paintings of Chagall, with Chekhov (tenderness), Gogol (satire) and Nina Berberova (both of these qualities) at the same time. This is a “surrealist ballet” that you want to read over and over again – the magic of her words is so great.