Tuesday, 4 March 2014

'The Good Life Elsewhere' by Vladimir Lorchenkov (Review)

Whether it's Asian boat people sent to Papua New Guinea by a heartless Australian government or phantom Romanians and Bulgarians invading the UK in search of benefit payments, hardly a day goes by without the issue of migrants, illegal or otherwise, causing a stir in the news.  However, it appears that none of these destinations are good enough for the people of Moldova - according to writer Vladimir Lorchenkov, they dream of settling in another country entirely...

The Good Life Elsewhere (translated by Ross Ufberg, review copy courtesy of New Vessel Press) is a novel about the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of the small Moldovan village of Larga, most of whom want nothing more than to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.  As the story begins, Serafim Botezato, along with forty-five of his countrymen, believes that he has finally made it to the semi-mythical country of his dreams, Italy.  Sadly, on approaching the first 'Italian' they encounter, he realises that the people smugglers have dropped them off a lot closer to home than expected...

Still, one failed illegal migration isn't about to stop our intrepid band of would-be refugees.  Serafim and the rest of the villagers start thinking of ways to leave their worthless, debt-ridden lives, and the ideas they come up with are astounding.  What do you get if you take an old tractor, a stone and a brush, and a fake antique sword?  Three amazing ways to leave Moldova behind, once and for all ;)

The Good Life Elsewhere is a fun, crazy novel which is a joy to read.  It's a book which, in its portrayal of a country in decline (and on the move), swings between side-splitting humour, poignant pathos and macabre violence.  A sample?
"Mingir, a village in the Hincesti region, was famous throughout Moldova for its residents who habitually trafficked in kidneys."
p.53 (New Vessel Press, 2014)
Now that's a sentence worthy of starting any anecdote...  And it's not just the people of Mingir that want out; the list of would-be emigrants stretches across geographical and socio-economic boundaries.  Even the President, dreaming of life as an assistant pizza cook, wants to leave Moldova behind for good.

The destination of choice is Italy, the promised land of wine, pasta and low-paid cleaning jobs, and Serafim, who has dreamt of Italy for decades, is one of the most determined of the villagers.  In preparation for his trip, he has even learnt Italian from a book, although (unfortunately) his language skills are not all they might be.  Still, the problem of actually getting to the promised land remains, and it is in the inventive methods of circumventing the border guards that Lorchenkov excels.

There are three main strands to the book, interspersed with various tales of gallows humour from elsewhere in Moldova.  In the first, Serafim and his friend Vasily Lungu try to escape using Lungu's tractor.  It may not seem like the most useful of escape vehicles, but the two friends are rather inventive when it comes to making the most of their materials.  Meanwhile, the local priest, seeking to catch up with the wife who abandoned him, decides to invade Italy, taking hundreds of thousands of Moldovans with him.  A holy crusade with Italy as its destination?  Why not?

Perhaps the funniest attempt though is the decision of a local to try to play his way to Italy, deciding that emigration through excellence in sport is the best option:
"Our goal?" asked Nikita Tkach.  "What is it brothers?"
  "Italy!" answered the villagers, in unison.
  "Yes, but first our goal is to master the game of curling," explained Nikita.  "This will lead us to Italy.  Our goal is to get the disk-like object with the handle across the ice into the finely drawn target!  And so - what's our goal?"
  "Our goal is to get the disk-like object with the handle across the ice into the finely drawn target!"
  "Amen!" bellowed Nikita (p.30)
Even this laudable ambition doesn't quite go without a hitch, however.  You see, you really need to be careful when learning the noble art of curling - those stones can be quite heavy...

The novel contains elements of magical realism, stretching the fabric of credibility, but there's a stark truth behind the slapstick humour.  Moldova is a poor country where the people are desperate to escape their hopeless lives and make a new start in the west.  In fact, 'Italy' (which several people claim doesn't really exist) is merely a state of happiness, not a place, and what the Moldovans are looking for may be something which is unattainable on earth.  Still, if only the people could start looking for it in their own backyards, they might just be that little bit happier.

Sadly, those heretics who dispute the glory of the heavenly Italian realm are not suffered gladly.  The Good Life Elsewhere contains several brutal stories, with some of the villagers burnt at the stake, or dismembered, simply for making other people uncomfortable.  There's just no future in denying the claim that Italy is the paradise Moldovans are waiting for, a disturbing take on the importance of having a dream.

In short, Lorchenkov's novel is a great read.  It has a very smooth, readable translation, and the book is very funny and bitingly satirical at times.  The writer has come up with an excellent look at life behind the former iron curtain, One Hundred Years of Solitude with more wine and tractors, but beneath the winter sports and holy crusades there is a serious lesson to be learnt.  The good life may seem to be elsewhere at times; however, we're more likely to find it if we start by looking a little closer to home...