A Russian-Jewish picaresque

Posted by HC in Books / Ethics / Travel on 4 July 2008

This would be a great novel if all it did was add to the heap of comic writing about Jewishness. But Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan scores many times over by taking us – breathless, gob-smacked – from the nouveau-riche world of glamorous, dodgy Moscow and on out to the staggeringly vibrant, but staggering, world of the ex-Soviet republics.

At the heart of the book is the stomach and the rather beaten-up male member of Misha Vainberg, the son of a dead gangster who was the 1,238th richest man in Russia. Our hero’s mind and heart come into the thing, too. The mind is rather messed up by¬† drugs, and the heart is in a perpetual state of yearning for a black girl met when Misha was studying multi-culturalism in New York.

Comic writing has to have a heart if its own. It needs to be merciless, but it has to have a fragile fingerhold on fellow-feeling. Misha is a mess of appetites and weaknesses. But he is as likeable as he is hapless. He would like to be good. In his (very exciting) adventures, he is very nearly brave. But he is up against a world in which everything is shifting too fast and too chaotically for it to be very clear what goodness might mean.

Very few cominc novels are brilliant at geo-politics, but Absurdistan takes us on a giddy tour of the power struggles of our world. At the same time, it is a hilarious account of second rate post-modern thinking.

All in all then, this is comic writing to put alongside Waugh’s Scoop. That it survives the comparison is saying something.

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