All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa
By Kat Solomon
All Russians Love Birch Trees, Olga Grjasnowa’s debut novel, is for me the best kind of book—the sort that you stumble across, buy on a whim, and which somehow turns out to be exactly what you needed. I don’t know how I missed this book when it first appeared (from Other Press in 2014, translated from the German by Eva Bacon), but I’m glad it wandered into my life. It’s a relevant book for 2017, a lyrical novel with a deep political resonance and one that emphatically rejects the tribalism and anti-immigrant sentiments currently on the rise in the U.S. and abroad.
The title itself is winkingly misleading; the novel is not about Russia or Russians at all. Rather, its real interest is in undermining the kind of stereotypical thinking that the title phrase exemplifies. The narrator, Masha, is a Russian Jew who grew up in Baku; her family fled the violence of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region following the collapse of the USSR (a conflict that re-ignited last summer, but received little coverage from the American media). Unable to get a visa to the U.S. and rejecting Israel as an option, the family ends up in Germany, despite Masha’s mother’s initial protests (“the ashes were still warm”). When the novel opens, Masha is living in Frankfurt with her German boyfriend Elias, speaks several languages, and is studying to become an interpreter. When Elias breaks his leg while playing soccer, the consequences throw Masha’s life into turmoil.
Narrated in a straightforward prose style of short declarative sentences and with dialogue that is often allowed to stand for itself without explication, this is not a plot-heavy novel. It gains its power slowly through the accumulation of irony and thematic resonances. Masha is tormented by the memory of the murder of an Armenian woman she witnessed as a child but refuses to discuss her past with Elias, claiming, “I didn’t want a genocide to be the key to my personality.” When Elias suffers fatal complications after his injury, Masha begins to unravel. In the second half of the book she moves to Israel, where she has extended family, and starts up a troubled romantic relationship with a woman named Tal, a leftist political activist fighting for the rights of Palestinians. Narratively, the novel flags a bit in its final pages, as Masha finds herself, through a dream-like series of events, wandering alone through the streets of Ramallah.
The indeterminate nature of the ending may be frustrating to some readers. Also frustrating, I suspect, especially for American readers, may be Masha’s refusal to face up to her trauma, to just “deal with her shit” and move on. Thematically, however, this is a novel deeply invested in the idea that the past is always with us, and so are the identities we have inherited, whether we like it or not. In many ways, Grjasnowa’s characters’ obsession with questions of identity and a kind of East-West discourse could not be more timely. Aside from Elias, Masha’s closest friends in Germany are Cem, a German-born gay Turk who has to continually field questions about where he is “really” from, and her ex-boyfriend Sami, an Arab born in Beirut who has since left Germany to study in the U.S.
Another German acquaintance, Daniel, makes only two brief appearances in the novel, but both are emblematic. Early in the novel he assumes that Masha, being Jewish, should sympathize with Israel and the Zionist cause. It’s clear that Masha can’t stand Daniel or his assumptions. When she runs into him again much later, in Israel, he has visited Lebanon and changed his opinion. With the zeal of the newly converted, Daniel assures Masha that he now has a thorough understanding of the situation, having taught in refugee camps and spoken with Palestinians about “the conflict”: “How horrible it all had been. With Israel. All this injustice and wars. I had no idea. You always brushed me off. They told me they hate the Jews. They wish they’d die. But I corrected them. Told them it’s wrong to hate the Jews. You can’t tar them all with the same brush…I told them it’s not the Jews who are to blame. But they can go ahead and hate the Israelis.” Masha never directly articulates to the reader what she dislikes about Daniel, but we understand that Daniel is a stand-in for people who can only see the world in these stark terms, who have to pick a side to defend, and are thus unable to grasp the tragedy at a more complex human level. Masha, the descendant of a Holocaust survivor who has witnessed a genocide against Armenians in her home country, has no interest in picking sides; her allegiances are more diffuse and universal than that.
This novel’s insistence on connecting the personal and the political may be a hurdle for Americans readers, but I wish this book were better known here, precisely because we could all benefit from its rejection of nationalism in favor of a more cosmopolitan and radical humanism.