Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt (Olga Grjasnowa)

Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt (literally: The Russian is a person who loves birch trees) is the first novel by Olga Grjasnowa. [It is originally in German and I don’t think it has been translated into English yet.]
Finished on: 12.6.2019

Content Note: bimisia, (critical treatment of) antisemitism

Plot:
Mascha came to German when she was just a child, her Jewish family originally from what is now Azerbaijan and used to be the Soviet Union when they left. Now Mascha makes the best use of her talent for languages and is working to be a translator at the UN, achieving high grades and receiving scholarships that bring her to many cities. Mascha seems to have made it, but underneat that shiny success story lies her trauma – from the pogroms in Baku that her family fled from, from the loss of her great love Elischa. But that trauma can’t remain hidden forever.

Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt is a challenging debut novel – both for the author and her readers. But it is absolutely worth it to work your way through it.

The book cover showing half of a sitting woman, so you can't see her face, in front of a green background.

Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt is ambitious. Often when you call a project, a novel, a film ambitious, it’s commenting on the fact that it doesn’t quite do those ambitions justice. This is not the case for this novel – it wants a lot and achieves most of it. It’s a beautifully written novel with an interesting protagonist and offers us an unusual perspective.

I am not sure that I got all the political implications Grjasnowa alludes to, and sometimes I found myself wishing for a quick guide to Azerbaijani history. But this historical and political knowledge isn’t necessary to fall emotionally into this story, and Grjasnowa makes Mascha’s trauma very obvious and gives readers a slice of what it must feel like to be in her shoes.

I did have two issues with the book that tie into each other a little. Mascha is bisexual which is awesome, but the way it is handled here is not. For one, Mascha’s really meaningful relationships are all with men – Elischa, Cem and Sami. This would also be an issue for me if she wasn’t bisexual. But in light of her sexual orientation, this feels even weirder. It makes it appear that her sexual encounters with women were part of the glossy veneer of her as a successful, feminist woman, but not actually what she wanted. And that is just a bimisic trope – that us bisexuals do it for the attention, that it’s just a fad, and that at the end of the day, we’ll all end up with men anyway. And that just sucks.

That being said, I liked the guys Mascha surrounds herself with and when Elischa dies, it hit me really hard (albeit its predictabitly). If one of them had been a woman, I could have sat with all of this much more easily.

In any case, the novel is a good read that had me completely engrossed. I can very much recommend it.

Summarizing: captivating.

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