A clever, cross-cultural picaresque first novel

March 04, 2007|By Donna Seaman

Petropolis

Anya Ulinich

Viking / 324 pages / $24.95

Debut author Anya Ulinich fits many tantalizing and telling details into the opening pages of her smart, comedic, cross-cultural, picaresque novel, Petropolis. She briskly conveys the surreal poverty and dilapidation of Asbestos 2, a desolate Siberian town. Not only is Asbestos 2 named after a carcinogenic mineral, the town was also the site of one of the gulag's many labor camps.

It's a rough place even in 1992, but Lubov Alexandrovna Goldberg, the head librarian and a proud member of the intelligentsia, is determined to bring culture into her 14-year-old daughter's life. A piano is out of the question. Mother and daughter live in "two crowded rooms" without Mr. Goldberg, who has disappeared somewhere in America. So Lubov pictures Sasha playing the violin, "minus the frizzy bangs."

Is this a typical mother-daughter conflict over hair? Why does this paragon of good grooming and high art, "an archetypal Russian beauty" with pale skin and smooth blond hair, have a daughter with "yellow freckled skin, frizzy auburn hair, and eyes like chocolate eggs"? Not because Sasha is Jewish, as everyone assumes given her last name, but because her missing father is black.

A classic picaresque novel relates the episodic adventures of a rascally or roguish protagonist (the Spanish word "picaro" translates as "rogue"). Does young, chubby Sasha fit the bill? The target of school bullies and a magnet for prejudice two times over with racism slightly trumping anti-Semitism, not only is she an outsider, she is also headstrong, mischievous, utterly unconventional and fearless.

After proving herself devoid of musical abilities, Sasha is thrilled when her mother enrolls her in the only art school in Asbestos 2, a threadbare operation in a decrepit basement. There Sasha, whose desire to be an artist is far greater than her talent, befriends Katia, whose vodka-steeped family lives in the town dump beneath the dome of a large concrete half-pipe.

Sasha promptly falls for Katia's dissolute older brother, Alexey, and soon gets pregnant.

Audacious, clever and lively, Petropolis abounds in precise and pointed descriptions, rapid-fire dialogue and unpredictable interactions among intriguing characters. As Sasha embarks on an unplanned odyssey to America, well-timed flashbacks provide the back story for each outlandish episode.

Ulinich has written fresh and nervy social satire in the spirit, if not quite with the power, of Tom Wolfe, Aleksandar Hemon, Gish Jen, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar. Not only does Ulinich take sharp aim at racism, she also skewers sexism, philanthropy for all the wrong reasons, Americans' ignorance about the realities of life in Russia and the myopia of privilege.

Ulinich has taken her title from a poem about St. Petersburg by the great martyred Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who boldly criticized Stalin and consequently died in a camp in Siberia in 1938. His works were banned for decades. The poem, translated by Ulinich, is merely a plot device: It's what brings Sasha's ill-matched parents together.

Ulinich fails to profoundly engage with Mandelstam's poem because she isn't a poetic, or intrinsically literary, writer. Not that she doesn't have an extraordinary facility with language. She does, especially given that English is her second tongue. She is a captivating storyteller and a superb comic writer.

Ulinich began her creative life as a painter, and she is a vividly visual writer with a gift for provocative detail. Perhaps in her next novel she'll find her way to more penetrating insights and greater dimensions. In the meantime, Petropolis is a notable first effort, entertaining and tonic.

Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist.

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