In Nesaule’s novel, tenderness prevails tentatively

In Love with Jerzy Kosinski

Fans of Agate Nesaule’s 1995 memoir A Woman in Amber have been eagerly awaiting her first novel. Now, 13 years after her memoir received an American Book Award and international praise, it has arrived.

In Love with Jerzy Kosinski explores some of the same issues as A Woman in Amber in a fictional context: immigration, exile and the search for an authentic self after the trauma of war. It’s the story of Anna Dūja, an immigrant to America who escaped from Latvia as a child during the Second World War. Now 43, Anna finds herself in a trap largely of her own devising.

Anna is married to Stanley, an occasionally charming but manipulative Polish-American man. It’s a relationship that is at best disappointing. Stanley undermines Anna‘s self-esteem by offering a punishing kind of love, and the assurance that no one else could ever love her.

She finds solace in an imaginary love affair with the novelist Jerzy Kosinski, author of The Painted Bird, a book Anna reveres. (In A Woman in Amber, Nesaule described teaching this book to her American students.) Kosinski, she feels, is someone who could understand her fractured past, her post-traumatic present. They could comfort each other.

But even in her fantasies Anna has to admit that it’s unlikely that she could ever encounter the glamorous Kosinski in the northern Wisconsin countryside where she and Stanley live. Anna’s feelings of isolation there are reinforced by the fact that she can’t drive and must rely on Stanley or her neighbors to go anywhere.

Into the lake of her discontent Anna drops a tiny pebble: she learns how to drive.

The ripple effect is far reaching. One act leads to another, and eventually to the demise of Anna’s marriage. Though she remains susceptible to Stanley’s guilt-mongering and attacks on her self-worth, she begins to act in her own defence and on her own behalf, sometimes in surprisingly vigorous ways. 

Once established in her own apartment, Anna must deal with the usual struggles of a newly single middle-aged woman and face the challenges of anxiety and loneliness. She longs for companionship, for love. Her neighbor Molly tells her: “In real life it’s always women who find men. Always. So let’s get busy.” Nesaule doesn’t shrink from detailing the discrepancies between feminist beliefs and female actions and longings.

Here the novel flirts with the outlines of what can almost be called a genre: the middle-aged woman who leaves an unsatisfying marriage to find herself. Thus we are not surprised when a younger lover shows up in Anna’s life, nor that she discovers in her new relationship that the patterns of a lifetime die hard and can sometimes reincarnate in surprising guises. 

Perhaps not wishing to retrace territory already covered in A Woman in Amber, Nesaule reveals Anna’s traumatic wartime history in brief, dream-like fragments. She deals more directly with the personal histories of others. One is a Jewish survivor named Sara who becomes a friend (”…did all exiles automatically recognize and respond to each other like this? Did a complex past unite people even when they did not talk about it?”). The other is of course Jerzy Kosinski, whose autobiographical details become increasingly suspect over time. Are the events of The Painted Bird really based on his own experiences, as he once claimed? Or is the book a self-serving betrayal of those who helped him during the war? Are the growing criticisms of him, including accusations of plagiarism, true?

There is a book that Anna keeps hoping Jerzy Kosinski will write, one that will illuminate her own story as well as the stories of others. It will explain what happens when you live on the edge of war, even if you’re not one of its direct victims. When, in a line of stalled traffic, she hears that Kosinski has committed suicide, Anna thinks she knows why: “He was a child during the war: he was one of the hunted; he was one of the millions marked for death.”

One of the questions Nesaule asks in In Love with Jerzy Kosinski is about the purpose of retelling all the different narratives of suffering, of victimhood. What is the point of reliving these stories, of telling them? She comes up with a tentative possibility: “Maybe instead of clashing and competing, all the stories will weave together into a great tapestry, each thread part of an intricate, somber pattern. Maybe tenderness will prevail.”

Through her stubborn, almost unconscious quest for happiness, in the end Anna learns to have some tenderness, some compassion for herself as well. She finally manages to extricate her fate from that of the beloved Jerzy, “her idol, her soul mate, but not her twin.”

I wondered about Anna’s last name, Dūja. It wasn’t a word I recognized. My Latvian-English dictionary translated it as both “pigeon” and “dove.” In fact the two birds are close relatives and belong to the same family. Both have mournful songs and tend to build relatively flimsy nests, often in insecure places. But they are the strongest fliers of all birds, and are highly manoeuvrable in flight.


In Love with Jerzy Kosinski

Agate Nesaule

Madison, Wis.:  University of Wisconsin Press,  2009

ISBN 978-0-299-23130-9

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Latvian past, American present collide in novel

Yuri Balodis, the protagonist of Pauls Toutonghi’s engaging novel Red Weather, has a problem. He, the teenaged son of escapees from Soviet Latvia, has fallen in love with Hannah Graham, a committed socialist. His infatuation leads him to join the blue-eyed Hannah in her early-morning attempts to sell the Socialist Worker to uninterested workers in Milwaukee’s downtrodden Third Ward.

Yuri’s father Rudolfs is not impressed. He drags Yuri off the street, embarrassing him in front of his new left-leaning friends.

“Communists,” he tells Yuri, “are like goats. They come into your house. They eat everything. They sleep everywhere. They make an awful noise. Then, just before they leave, they shit on the furniture.”

Though a steadfast fan of capitalism, Yuri’s father is not one of its prime beneficiaries. Rudolfs Balodis is a part-time night janitor at Jack Baldwin Chevrolet, a position he endures by remaining “continually and slightly intoxicated.” He is a dedicated consumer of bourbon and Pabst, whose watery alcoholic eyes speak of multiple disappointments. All he wants now is for his son to grow up as a real American, free from the tortured past of his immigrant parents—a past Rudolfs has put so thoroughly behind him that it could have been lived by another person.

Yuri’s parents revel in things like electricity. They love their adopted city, redolent of sauerkraut and beer, in the way only collapsed cities can be loved. (A former industrial giant, it can now come up with no better slogan than “Milwaukee, a Great Place on a Great Lake.”) Yuri’s mother Mara has decorated their apartment with advertisements for consumer goods cut from magazines and covered with plastic. She adores Yuri and calls him bučina, or little kiss. She and Yuri’s father speak a frequently hilarious English filtered through Latvian speech patterns. Rudolfs Balodis is in the habit of calling everyone “my darling,” and has an aversion to contractions, while Mara can close an argument with: “Simply shut up, Yuri. I am telling you this as your mother.”

The inevitable collisions between the Latvian past and the American present are both funny and poignant. Yuri’s parents are Latvian with a Soviet inflection, and Yuri’s quietness and lack of communality (as evidenced by his preference for reading in his room) are perceived by them as gratuitous, and slightly suspect. They come from Soviet housing developments surrounding Rīga where the walls were, according to Yuri’s mother, “thin as flour,” and where “everyone was quiet, all the time, because if you said anything, made any noise at all, someone would make a note and call the secret police and you would disappear. So be happy for reading in here with me and being together with all this nice electricity.” He is not permitted even to learn Latvian; his parents want him to be as purely American as a soap bubble, or one of the endless sitcoms on television.

But the Latvian past muscles its way into their lives. After a cryptic telephone call, Yuri’s parents inform him that they will be receiving visitors from Latvia: Rudolf’s old friend Ivan and his wife. Ivan, his father informs Yuri, was his closest friend until Rudolfs stabbed him in the leg just before leaving Latvia. How Ivan feels about this event now is anyone’s guess.

Red Weather is an ode to the painful trajectory of Rudolfs Balodis’s life. Drunk, swaying under the stars on their little apartment balcony, he still embodies a doomed gallantry that can express itself only in humorous asides, a bravery only slightly compromised by its possessor’s complete inebriation.

Sometimes the sheer magnitude of Rudolfs makes Yuri seem small, almost fetal. It’s as though any normal adolescent anger towards his father has been smothered in retrospective filial guilt. Yuri seems oddly muted, like an updated prodigal son from an Anna Brigadere story, or an endlessly observant and self-effacing narrator in a Charles Dickens novel.

In Red Weather, the story goes off in all directions, a road movie that never quite leaves town—but isn’t that the story of adolescence? Part of the chaos, and the delight, is in the meeting of two worlds that are completely unknown to each other, yet strangely familiar. The Latvian past informs the American present, and in the end brings certain essential facts to light. The disorder is not entirely resolved, but this too seems natural and satisfying. According to Toutonghi, an old Latvian proverb states that every good story has at least one bad joke. Red Weather provides both.


Red Weather

Pauls Toutonghi

2006:  Random House,  2006

ISBN 0307336751

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Pauls Toutonghi

Pauls Toutonghi, whose debut novel is Red Weather, is half Latvian, half Egyptian, as visitors to his official Web site may learn. EN

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Death under the northern lights

The Trudeau Vector

Arctic cold is just one of the potential killers in Juris Jurjevics’ first novel, The Trudeau Vector. In this engrossing thriller, four scientists are found dead outside an international resesarch station in the Canadian Arctic. Three of them are horribly contorted, their pupils and irises missing. The fourth seems to have evaded whatever killed his colleagues only to have, in the words of an investigator, “turned himself into a popsicle.”

Dr. Jessica Hanley, a crack American epidemiologist, is dispatched from California to determine the cause of the ghastly deaths. She lands at Trudeau Station, located on a small Canadian island in a sea of ice, at the beginning of the long Arctic night. For the next four months the sun will not be seen and the troubled research centre will be plunged into inaccessible darkness.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, an old Cold Warrior named Admiral Rudenko is ordered by his superiors to locate a missing Russian submarine. Its last communication was a distress call issued from a Norwegian fjord. The submarine’s previous port of call was a hole in the ice at Trudeau Station, where it had retrieved the fifth and only surviving member of the group of scientists discovered on the ice.

Were the scientists deliberately poisoned? If so, with what? Did they ingest or inhale chemical toxins? Or were they accidentally exposed to some kind of bacterial life brought into contact with humans for the first time through the alarmingly rapid warming of the arctic climate?

In her attempts to discover what, and possibly who, killed the scientists, epidemiologist Hanley is thrown into the intense tangle of relationships that has evolved at Trudeau Station. Though accustomed to putting her work first, Hanley also struggles with guilt about leaving her son in California for four months while she pursues her investigation. She has little in the way of evidence besides the contorted bodies of the victims and a cryptic entry in one of the deceased researchers’ notes.

The Trudeau Vector is crammed with fascinating information, whether the setting is the Arctic, California, Moscow or the inside of a post-Soviet Russian admiral’s head. We learn that Arctic temperatures are hard on dental work (the cold makes amalgam fillings contract and fall out); that there is an Inuit word meaning “she is kindly disposed to him after having not loved him” and another for “shit happens.” Jurjevics is conversant not only with the language of submarines, medical technology and epidemiology, but also Japanese culinary habits, French-Canadian literature and the engineering possibilities of a research station designed to resemble a giant igloo.

His investigator, Hanley, is a prickly character even when compared with such moodily independent female investigators as Kay Scarpetta, V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone. Hanley is a mass of contradictions, a hippie epidemiologist devoted to wheatgrass juice, Bach Flower Remedies and cigarettes. One of her kindlier colleagues calls her a “nicotine-addicted nature girl,” while her ex-husband complains that her medical advice always sounds like lawn care. Her somewhat abrasive spunkiness will either charm or annoy, depending upon the reader. Particularly at the outset, she is prone to statements so startlingly eccentric that one wonders how she can hold down a job. However, she is a brilliant scientist—and that, in fiction, is enough.

The characters of Rudenko and the other Cold Warriors are drawn with sympathy and, indeed, some romance. Admiral Rudenko’s plight is particularly poignant: that of a one-time naval hero sidelined by a new Russia given over to cell phones, shopping and mafija. In all, the author’s sheer invention is breathtaking—enough to create a finely-drawn, cutting-edge Arctic research station, with plenty left over for sly asides like naming an entomologist Dr. Skudra (in Latvian, “Dr. Ant”). The book is permeated by a sense of outrage at the destruction of the Arctic by global warming, pollution and governmental indifference. It’s safe to say that this is one novelist who will not be called upon to testify before the U.S. Senate about climate change.

The Trudeau Vector is tremendously suspenseful, especially if the idea of being in a submarine makes you nervous. If it doesn’t, there is the intrinsic horror of a place where just stepping outside can prove fatal. Jurjevics succeeds in conveying the weird beauty of the extreme north, its utter and disorienting strangeness.

Jurjevics is the Latvia-born co-founder and publisher of Soho Press in New York City. Among the titles released by Soho is Agate Nesaule’s 1995 autobiography, A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile.


The Trudeau Vector

Juris Jurjevics

New York:  Viking (The Penguin Group),  2005

ISBN 0670034371

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