The Virus of Our History: Historical Determinants and Contexts in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

22 Aug
Cover of "Absurdistan: A Novel"

Cover of Absurdistan: A Novel

The hero of Gary Shteyngart’s satiric novel Absurdistan is burdened as much by history as he is by his excess weight. From the novel’s opening —a plea to the INS to allow him into the US — Misha Vainberg (his last name touching both on vanity and futility) is a soul in bondage seeking freedom. History is Misha’s Egypt, and America the Promised Land towards which he wanders.

The entwined histories that hold Misha captive are that of the former Soviet Empire, now in rapid decline, and a literally disfiguring Judaism Misha both exploits and resents. Misha seeks to leave these traditions behind in favor of the New York City of cheerful laundromats, democratic subway cars hurtling ever forward, and comidas criollas. While America is not historyless, it constitutes relatively little baggage for Misha.  Indeed, Rouenna, Misha’s Bronx-born Afro-Latin/German/Irish girlfriend, can be seen as the ethnic culmination of America’s colonial past. Underprivileged, canny, and baldly opportunistic, Rouenna represents for Misha not the burdens of tradition and decline, but the promise of progress; and progress is Misha’s true religion. This American woman embodies an erotic escape from the Soviet/ Judaic baggage of Misha’s psyche; Rouenna is the Statue of Liberty welcoming Misha’s history-plagued soul into a new harbor. As the novel ends, Misha pledges to throw in his lot with Rouenna’s American one, come what may. The date of Misha’s decision is September 10, 2001. There’s no escaping history.

Primary in Misha’s experience of history is his survival of the fall of the USSR. Ironically, Misha is an economic beneficiary of the decline of Communist Empire, as the only son of the 1,238 richest man in Russia. His father Boris, a successful oligarch (read: gangster) emerged from prison at the dawn of a new era:

…By the time Beloved Papa got out, two things had happened: Gorbachev had graciously called off most of that annoying, unprofitable communism with the long lines and detonating television sets, and Beloved Papa had met everyone he would need to know in his re-incarnation as a Russian oligarch. All those Georgians and Tatars and Ukrainians with the sweaty-brow entrepreneurial spirit so beloved by the American consulate. All the Ingush and Ossetians and Chechens with the casual attitude toward public violence that would create the fine explosive Russia we know today. These men could throw a punch, strangle a hooker, fake a customs form, hijack a truck, blow up a restaurant, start a shell company, buy a television network, run for parliament. Oh, they were kapitalists, all right. (p. 58)

Here Shteyngart associates the rise of the oligarchy with the descent of the former USSR into crime, corruption, and chaos. The “entrepreneurial spirit” of post-Soviet kapitalism engenders not democratic opportunity, but an explosive violence animating every exchange of power, from punch-throwing to running for parliament. Boris Vainberg himself falls by the sword, blown up by fellow oligarchs “Oleg the Moose and his syphilitic cousin Zhora.”

Misha encounters Oleg and Zhora at his father’s funeral, and his personal anger and loss are dwarfed by the exigencies of Soviet and post-Soviet history.  He accepts Oleg’s assertion that “[my disagreements with your father] to the very last were just fights between brothers. I think, in some measure, we’re all sort of responsible for his death.” (p. 46)

Misha is all too aware that these aging gangsters share more in his father’s legacy than he does. He further understands that culpability for his father’s murder, much as in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, is collective:

Standing before the menfolk of my father’s generation, I could do nothing. Before their rough hands and stale cigarette-vodka smells, I could only shudder and feel, along with fright and disgust, appeasement and complicity. These miscreants were our country’s rulers. To survive their world, one has to wear many hats—perpetrator, victim, silent bystander. I could do a little of each.

(p. 47)

As for Misha’s own Soviet history, he mourns the loss of his Soviet childhood more viscerally than the loss of his father. Encountering a group of kindergartners crossing a busy St. Petersburg street, Misha is struck with the profound schism between hopeful past and an amputated future:

I looked back at the children, catching the boy with the red flag taking his first careful step onto the Bolshoi Prospekt, waving his banner with gusto, as if this were 1971, not 2001, and the flag he held were still the emblem of a superpower. I asked myself, If I were to give each of them US$100,000, would their lives change? Would they learn to become human beings upon completing their adolescence? Would the virus of our history be kept at bay by a cocktail of dollar-denominated humanism? Would they become, in a sense, Misha’s Children? But even with my largesse, I could see nothing positive befalling them. A temporary respite from alcoholism, harlotry, heart disease, and depression. Misha’s Children? Forget it. It would make more sense to have sex with their teacher and then buy her a refrigerator…I cried for the children of some Kindergarten No. 567, and for my own impotence and collusion in everything around me. Eventually, I promised myself, I would cry for dead Papa, too.

(p. 37)

After abnegating a possible future as young oligarch, and instead funding (though not participating in) a charity called Misha’s Children, Misha escapes St. Petersburg for the titular Absurdistan, a fictional former Soviet republic. Here Misha may be somewhat free of his Soviet sorrow, but his other historical burden, Judaism, is constantly brought to bear.

Alienated from the faith of his forefathers, Misha’s signal Jewish experience was a disfiguring circumcision at the hands of drunken Brooklyn Hasidim at the age of eighteen.  And while Misha may feel some  nostalgic ambivalence for Russia (demonstrated by his frequent reference to its literary giants such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov and Chekhov) Misha finds little to recommend in Jewishness. He advises his young stepmother Lyuba against converting to Judaism, complaining “I lost half my khui over it” (p. 59) and proclaiming “it’s just a codified system of anxieties…It’s a losing proposition for everyone involved, the Jew, his friend, even his enemy in the end.” (p.88)

When called upon by his erstwhile friends the Nanabragovs to act as Minister of Cultural Affairs, Misha’s cynicism regarding Jewish history becomes painfully clear. He formulates a “Modest Proposal” for a Holocaust Museum in Absurdistan in order to attract Israeli and American tourist money. Misha seeks to Disney-fy the Holocaust, reduce it to kitsch, yielding a sellable brand: “Even among the most thoroughly secular and unaffiliated young Jews, the Holocaust enjoys great name recognition.” (p 268) Only whitefish scores higher. He even proposes a themelike museum experience called “Holocaust for Kidz,” explaining that “studies have shown that it’s never too early to frighten a child with images of skeletal remains and naked women being chased by dogs across the Polish snow, “ and that “young participants will leave feeling alienated and profoundly depressed,”(270-271) to seek comfort in ice cream.

Luckily or unluckily, Misha’s Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish friendship, never comes to pass. Misha again enacts his roles as “perpetrator, victim, and silent bystander” as the Absurdstani war reveals itself to be an artificial sham spiraling out of control, the  Nanabragovs corrupt opportunists, and Misha’s own efforts in the political situation witless machinations benefiting solely the power elite.

Misha’s Jewish history does benefit him directly in one way, however—he is rescued from Absurdsvani violence by a tribe of “Mountain Jews,” who help him reach somewhat of a rapprochement with his Jewishness and reflect newly on his situation. Upon reflecting upon his circumstances—still rich, now casually affianced to the female scion of the Nanabragov dynasty, and bound for Belgium, of which he is a paid-for citizen, Misha decides instead at the last minute (one of the last minutes before 9/11/01, Shteyngart is careful to point out) to extricate himself from the Old World altogether and launch himself back into New York and Rouenna.

Misha’s desire for Rouenna never abates in Absurdistan; she is soother of his half-ruined khui, goddess of Laundromat and topless bar whose cultural baggage of poverty and racial complexity only increase her allure. She is the ever-optimistic, dark-skinned refutation to the pale sad Sarah, a Russian “Jewess” whom Misha encounters at his father’s funeral. True, Rouenna may be pregnant by Jerry Shteynfarb, another Russian Jewish émigré whom Misha knew at Accidental College and disdains as an opportunistic hack, but Misha decides, “[the baby] will be my child, too.  They are all my children, as far as I’m concerned.” (p. 332) Thus Misha’s Children are to be American—to be specific, Russian/Jewish/Puerto Rican/ German/Irish children, born in New York. This is Misha’s bid to escape history.

Not by accident, often Misha’s recollections of New York and Rouenna are expressed in images of flight:

I floated above the city, glancing generously in each direction. The careless hooks and crags of Queens and Brooklyn, slivers of industry, quadrangles of brown-bricked terrace flats; the frantic middle-class hopes of already half-darkened New Jersey tendering their resignation for the night; the carpeted grid of Manhattan sinking into the flat horizon, the garlands of yellow light—diffuse, flickering—that form the sprawl of tenements, the garlands of yellow light –swerving, opportunistic—that form the headlights of taxi caravans: the garlands of yellow light, aye, in their horizontal and vertical arrangements that form a final resting place for the collected hopes of our civilization.

And to my father, I say: I’m sorry, but this floating feeling, this yellow city at my feet, those full lips around what’s left of me, this is my happiness, Papa. This is my pierogi.

(p. 35)

This list, this prayer, this incantation, recalls less the Great Russian authors and seems to strive instead for a Whitmanesque optimism. Whether Misha Vainberg makes it back to New York in time for 9/11, the reader doesn’t know. But at least by novel’s end he’s lost some weight.

Works Cited

Shteyngart, Gary. Absurdistan. New York: Random House, 2006.

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