"All Russians Love Birch Trees," by Olga Grjasnowa

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Olga Grjasnowa Photo by Rene Fietzek

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By: Olga Grjasnowa, translated from the German by Eva Bacon.

Publisher: Other Press, 324 pages, $15.95.

Review: While Grjasnowa’s book suffers a bit from lack of cohesion, she does an admirable job of portraying the rootlessness and wanderlust of youth.

REVIEW: 'All Russians Love Birch Trees,' by Olga Grjasnowa, translated by Eva Bacon

  • Article by: KIM HEDGES
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 4, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Olga Grjasnowa’s debut novel follows the peregrinations of a young European woman named Masha. Although in a sense the story is a familiar one — a young adult trying to find herself amid romantic liaisons, friendships and her career — Grjasnowa also imbues the narrative with a unique set of circumstances related to national and cultural identity.

Born to Jewish parents in Azerbaijan (like the author), Masha and her family fled to Germany when she was a child to escape the conflicts between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Already multilingual even before moving to Germany, Masha continued to study languages after moving there, also spending time abroad both for school and pleasure, and ultimately pursuing interpretation and translation professionally.

The novel is divided into four parts, loosely defined by changes in relationships or locales. Part one, which takes up almost a third of the book, feels frustratingly static, centering around the uncertain situation of Masha’s boyfriend, Elias, recovering from an injury in the hospital. Grjasnowa’s writing itself is similarly slow to take off. Initial allusions to the cultural identity issues that are ultimately part of the fabric of “All Russians” feel a bit forced, as when Masha says to Elias, “You always have to play the compassionate German, huh?” and Elias ribs, “Do I need an immigrant background to play soccer?”

With Elias mostly out of the picture from part two onward, Grjasnowa seems to find more of a rhythm as Masha becomes unmoored, spending more time with her former lover Sami and her close friend Cem, both of whom also have very multicultural backgrounds. It’s a common occurrence for people to not know how to ethnically pigeonhole any one of them. Masha eventually moves to Israel, plunging herself into another realm afflicted with its own set of complex cultural and political issues, and acquiring other romantic connections there, as well.

Grjasnowa’s spare prose, in Eva Bacon’s translation from the German, portrays Masha as blunt, dryly humorous and no-nonsense — sometimes nearly clinically so — whether in the midst of grief or arousal. In fact, at the extreme end, some lines are so flat as to seem curiously valueless (“I took a peanut, felt the salty taste on my tongue, and chewed it up”). The book’s biggest problem may be a lack of cohesion; the brief part four is such a departure that it almost feels like an appendix. At the same time, one need only consider the inherent tendencies of the time of life being depicted. In “All Russians,” Grjasnowa expresses the tumultuousness and indirect trajectories of youth against a world that’s anything but fixed.

Kim Hedges is an editor and book reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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