April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
August 11, 2010
Gina Ochsner. The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 384 pages. $18.25 hardcover (Amazon). Click here or on the image to purchase The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
A true fiction, he said. Always he prefaced the tale this way for his students. True because this story had been proven and lived out so many times, it didn’t require the names of actual people or places. The truest stories never do, her father liked to say. And it was a good story because like the finest prayer rugs, it was a braided tale, which meant you could tell it forward or backward or start someplace in the middle, weaving in at all times an understanding of the past rolled against the present, which so very often suggested the future.
—The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight
Gina Ochsner’s first novel, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, is a true, braided fiction. Set in post-Soviet Russia, its characters—the residents of a decrepit, condemned apartment building—snipe at one another, divided by the cultural differences Communism was supposed to have snuffed out, and rely on one another, joined by the commonality of dreams in the midst of waste. Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians: all struggle to observe demanding faiths in a land to which they have been displaced. Their stories intertwine, sometimes to their collective aggravation, and their stories could belong to anybody in this region, at this time.
* * *
When I was thirteen years old, my parents became evangelical missionaries to Riga, Latvia, less than a decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. My parents stayed busy with their varied work as missionaries, establishing a certificate program in biblical and pastoral studies, working with church ministries to the poor, assisting with programs for orphans, and traveling regionally to work on evangelical outreach with small churches. This left my brother (twelve at the time) and me to explore the city without a chaperone in what was, to us, an astonishing degree of freedom.
We were accustomed to suburbs, to bicycle boundaries that encompassed only our own residential block, to church picnics and elementary school crossing guards and after-school childcare. We were accustomed, in a word, to safety.
In Riga, however, we encountered children a quarter of our age begging for change in front of lavish cathedrals. We met mafija henchmen, black market tradesmen, and apathetic thugs. I was late getting home one evening because I couldn’t get through a mob of elderly people who protested in front of government buildings for adequate social security benefits, for food where none was available, and for the government to turn the citywide heat on sooner than the third day after snow blanketed the ground without melting. In our own apartment courtyard, I saw a woman beat a man for taking vegetable scraps from the garbage pile—scraps she wanted for her own dinner. I watched an emaciated woman collapse after an aerobics class that met in our basement, because she, like so many of our neighbors, was so malnourished that her body could not support moderate exercise.
People around us were poor and desperate and hungry. Free market economy had opened up opportunity, yes—to other Westerners and to the more ruthless entrepreneurs already in the former Soviet Union: mafija kingpins and any bully lacking scruples. But in general, those who were poor and desperate under the Soviet Union became poor, desperate, and hungry under free enterprise. The very word—freedom—provoked a dark sort of laughter among most of the people we spoke with. They were free to spend money they didn’t have on products they had never known they needed, but everyone still had to watch their mouths when it came to criticizing the government or agitating for better living conditions. Even the elderly people I’d seen picketing were dispersed by police.
* * *
In Ochsner’s novel, nobody can organize enough to agitate for better conditions. They have given up even asking for the salaries their employers no longer provide. Instead, the characters are all locked in a state of suspense—regretting the past, dismal in the present, vaguely dreaming of the future. They tread water; they remain, inert. Even their faiths are inherited or borrowed, rumors of traditions, things whispered behind closed doors and only half-understood. Azade, a Muslim woman whose parents were displaced from their hometown, has sketchy memories of prayers she ought to know, rituals she ought to observe when her husband dies, and a hundred rules she must break by necessity, every day, just to survive.
It was one more thing on a long list she would like to ask God when she saw him. There were so many forms and rituals, codes of dress and rules for fasting, for standing up and sitting down, and then, of course, all the extra rules for women. If she were to see God face to face, if such a thing for a woman like her were possible, Azade wondered would she hide her hands when she saw Him? Would God think them unclean, given all that her hands had done?
Azade, who tends a portable toilet for a living, whose husband’s corpse lies unburied in the too-frozen courtyard months after his demise, whose hands are constantly unclean, dreams of mountain living and clean air and bustling markets and prayers—she dreams of knowing the words to the prayers that ought to absolve her, to lay her husband to rest, to live, at last, in a reassembled peace.
And Tanya, her young neighbor, living with her Orthodox grandmother Lukeria, adopts her grandmother’s Christianity because she feels it is the best way to make herself agreeable, loveable, a task she believes, even in childhood, is utterly impossible. Her grandmother teaches her, in secret, how to pray and how to observe what tradition requires.
This was how the faithful find God, in repetition of sound and gesture over time. That was tradition and tradition was not some silly ritual or toneless chant, but one woman after another, a mother singing into the ear of her daughter the words and the melody of an ancient unbroken song, which, Tanya was learning, almost always sounded like suffering.
* * *
Suffering was something my brother and I learned, living in Riga, to harden our faces toward. My brother learned to funnel the hurt and pain he saw widespread across our city into small-scale solutions: he befriended other teenagers, both Latvian and Russian locals, as well as other Westerners whose parents were similarly overburdened with so much to do, and brought them all home with him for meals, a quiet place to rest, and safe company. Drugs were becoming a serious problem in Riga; prostitution had always been a major issue; the mafija controlled so much. These boys turned to punk rock and skateboarding and each other, and with what few resources they had, they made the most of it.
I was less socially outgoing than my brother, spent more time alone, and couldn’t shake the vast implications of the unfairness I found everywhere I looked. I was a pampered Western teenager suffering a rude wake-up call, and I found I could do so little to help, that the little seemed useless in the face of such extensive suffering. I had always been contemplative and reserved, but our new surroundings, the deep cultural shock we faced, the replacement of all that was familiar with so much bleak hopelessness—it was too much for me.
* * *
In Ochsner’s novel, too, the characters struggle with their feelings of isolation, and each finds a different way to cope with these feelings. Tanya, the young Orthodox woman, keeps a journal in which she describes the various skyscapes she witnesses every day, skyscapes she describes with great artistry and that reflect, in roiling clouds or vivid, polluted sunsets, Tanya’s own internal landscape. Her interpretations are a way for her to take hold of something vast and seemingly beyond her reach—like dreams or true freedom or God—and to own that vastness in a personal way.
Yuri, a young Jewish man in the building, hides in an ancient submariner’s helmet from the chaos and noise of his own life—run-ins with the neighborhood bully, a nagging girlfriend eager to get pregnant and own appliances, the ticking in his head he’s endured ever since his tank exploded when he served in the Russian army in Chechnya.
Yuri’s mother, Olga, takes refuge both in the traditions of their faith, observing the Sabbath and attempting to ignore the complete lack of kosher surroundings, and in her training as a government reporter and translator, working on rephrasing the gruesome truth of national news stories into palatable, inoffensive drivel the masses can consume without worry.
This mass escapism brings splashes of color that rend all the gray, concrete, sink-hole hell of the characters’ landscape into a bearable existence. Further, these methods of escape give an otherwise hopeless group of people the imaginative power to dream of the future.
Azade dreams of returning to her family’s mountainous homeland region; Olga dreams of saving Yuri from conscription for a second time into the army and perhaps—a wistful dream—of hearing some definitive news of her long missing husband. Tanya dreams of Yuri, but also of escape, in any form, to any other place than this one. Yuri, in his own way, dreams of flight also and of the peaceful world of fish and of any life that might be lived with contentment. Pleasure, really, is too far off for most of these characters to conceptualize. Decadence never even enters the picture. But peace, contentment, a modest amount of satisfaction—these are the far-off hopes of the residents, whose land is now buried under pollution, garbage, human waste, rotting corpses, feral children, and hunger.
* * *
Our family moved back to the United States when I was fourteen, and we resumed the kind of lifestyle to which we had been accustomed before: grocery stores and minivans and youth groups and book reports. But settling back into Western culture was an uneasy task, and none of us really adjusted very well. It seemed disingenuous, I thought, to go back to life in the status quo, knowing full well that living that kind of life did no justice at all to what we had learned of truth. Like Olga’s interpretations of news stories, our Western life was palatable and inoffensive and didn’t shed light on the kinds of horror many people around the world experience every day. The truth was, none of us were ever the same after living overseas for that period. For a long while, we suffered an unconscious mourning of our perceived innocence, an innocence that was, once identified, truly an ignorance of the world, a complicit acceptance of the things that were wrong as status quo, unchangeable, given. We mourned our inability to make right the things we now knew were wrong.
My mother still worries that the things I saw and experienced in Riga warped my ability to practice a simple, faithful Christianity like I had been used to doing before. She worries, essentially, that I have lost my faith. And there is, honestly, something to her worry. My faith changed in that period. I did lose faith—in the essential fairness of life, in a system of give-and-take that balanced in the end, in the idea that people generally get what they deserve. But I wish I could somehow help my mother to understand that in the faith I have grown into, I believe a Christianity closely observed should never delude its adherents into believing that all basically good people—even all basically faithful Christians, like Tanya and Lukeria—somehow get a fair portion in the world. I learned in a broken country that a true faith is a disillusioned one, not in the sense of disappointment and misery, but in the sense of scales falling off one’s eyes, in the sense of an illusion being removed, a different light streaming in.
Instead of the faith I knew as a child in the West, I had, as an adult carrying within me pieces of the broken former Soviet culture, found—and eventually learned the words to describe—an idea that life was not about fairness, but about struggle; that faith was an elusive quality that one lived beside, allowing for fluctuation and mystery, rather than a thing one held in a clenched fist of certainty; that, as Ochsner writes of her own characters, “Faith was not about knowing where the path led, but believing the path led somewhere. “ The ugliness I saw—that Ochsner’s characters lived in—could not support a fairytale faith in the goodness of life or the fairness of people, but it could enable, through imagination, through tenacity, and through openness to spirit and experience, an ability to dream. And these dreams, these escapes, these quick, sweet moments of repose, were where I found that “cloud, water, and air,” as Lukeria described, can embody and ultimately enable faith, in all its mystery.
The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight is a beautiful book; the writing is superb, the story is both funny and true—in the way that the best fictions are true—and the characters are both historically and culturally accurate, living depictions of the characters I had known in the former Soviet Union. It sings into my ear, like Lukeria’s transmission of Orthodox faith to Tonya, a recognizable truth about my own wayfaring faith: there is a path, and I have traveled part of it already, and that, in faith, it will take me somewhere. But the real truth and beauty of this novel is its spirit, its representation of this piece of life so weak and frail but so eager, and able, to survive. This novel is a delicate and determined work of honesty that tells the truth about history, and in so doing, tells us truths about ourselves.
Meghan Young briefly studied fiction in Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program (full disclosure) under Gina Ochsner. She lives in Seattle, where she is an avid public library patron and volunteer. She is honored by the opportunity to review her mentor’s first novel.