Chock full of bleak humor, melancholic rumination, and satirical outtakes of American and Russian cultures, Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 critically acclaimed novel Absurdistan , about a fat Jewish young man who leaves his home country for America and returns to get stuck in a civil war, has enthralled transatlantic audiences. His reading at Radialsystem V in Berlin on September 25 was no exception. “I come from one failed empire,” Shteyngart, now living in Manhattan, said of his Russian homeland, “and I appear now to be living in another.”
Absurdistan tells the story of Misha Vainberg, a 325-pound Jewish man, voracious consumer of all things—particularly vodka—and the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia. A student of “multicultural studies,” Misha studied at Accidental College in the US before moving to New York City and falling in love with a big, round Latina woman named Rouenna, who is “black but also half Puerto Rican. And half German. And half Mexican and Irish.”
After Misha's father (“Beloved Papa”) kills a prominent businessman from Oklahoma, the Immigration and Naturalization Service bars the entire Vainberg family from re-entering the United States. And with that Misha finds himself trapped in his native St. Petersburg (or, as he calls it, “St. Leninsburg”); he also finds himself feeling American in his Russian homeland, and his homesickness is compounded by a botched circumcision that was performed on him by Orthodox Jews while he was still in New York. Mostly, Misha just wants to get back to Rouenna.
Things change, however, when Misha’s Papa is himself murdered by a fellow Russian oligarch. And then, tragi-comically, when he sleeps with his widowed stepmother. Salvation for all of these sins lies, oddly enough, in the tiny, oil-rich, former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan, where a corrupt consular officer sells Misha a Belgian passport so he can return to the America he loves and loves to consume. But as soon as things look like they will be sorted out, a civil war breaks out in Absurdistan between the ethnic Svani and the Sevo peoples. They are fighting over another absurdity: which direction Christ’s footrest on the cross leans, left or right?
Misha somehow becomes a main player on the Sevo side. And because of his studies at Accidental College, USA, he becomes their Minister for Multiculturalism —after explaining to the Sevo what multiculturalism is. Of course, our hero also falls in love with Nana, the American-educated daughter of the Sevo warlord. But something about the war, we learn, is just not right. There are the familiarly named American defense contractors (“Golly Burton”) that are interested in supporting the Absurdi elite for their oil; and vice versa, for their money. Misha’s take on all of this slowly reveals the workings of a war story that is all too familiar in the real world: the years leading up to 9/11.
Shteyngart has been both praised and criticized for Absurdistan . But one thing stands out above all: the author's penchant for using character creation and satire to get at dark truths. While at the American Academy this fall, he will be working on another novel, tentatively titled The Love Song of Eunice Park, about a New York City that has forgotten how to speak.