Article published on June 24, 2016.
Moldova may not be known for many things – in fact it may not be known very well at all – but if it is known for anything it may very well be its wine – this is a country that has produced wine for millennia and in huge quantities, it has in fact the largest wine collection in the world (Milestii Mici), so if you’re in to wines, you’re on to a winner. Translated literature, however, is (excuse the pun!) another story. Moldovan literature does though have an impressive history, dating back as it does to the tenth and eleventh centuries, and in the nineteenth century, in particular, a prominent written tradition emerged more specifically.
Situated between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is one of the smaller countries in Europe and also one of the poorest. And in Vladimir Lorchenkov’s The Good Life Elsewhere, this economic adversity forms the backdrop to the whole novel as a group of Moldovan villagers go in search of a better life in the promised land that is Italy. Given their meagre lot, the residents very much espouse the principle ‘the grass is always greener’, and it seems, in this instance, it may well be, the only problem is how to get to it.
And the story begins with the first wave of hopeful emigrants, led by the strongest champion for a move to Italy, Serafim Botezatu, making the pilgrimage by clandestine means in the guise of two curling teams and two underwater swim teams. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything, as it happens. And thus the tone is set for this most exemplary of absurdist fiction that takes as its impetus the incompleteness of its characters’ lives in Moldova to explore human experience.
Rich in satire, irony and dark humour, the novel has been described by some as hilarious, but for me the humour is more veiled than that and oftentimes set within or against compromising realities. There are indeed some very difficult and unsettling scenes in here. Nonetheless it is a wild and fanciful experience, as the villagers try variously to reach Italy by way of a flying tractor, a submarine, a holy Moldovan crusade, and not to miss out himself, the President attempts to parachute in, naturally!
Given the absurdist strain of the novel, the structure of the story differs somewhat from a traditional novel, with short chapters that read like vignettes, capturing the lives and travails of different characters, with a wider thread, focusing on a few key characters, joining it all together. And at times, the chapters reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales not only in the fact that they stand alone within a broader narrative, but oftentimes in their satire and morals too. The author remains at a distance from his characters as is the expectation of the genre, but this compromised the emotional attachment to the novel and I found myself largely unmoved. However, as absurdist fiction it excels and certainly is a worthy read in this capacity. That the genre encompasses so well a national identity of Moldova is a delightful addition. The humour and sketches do cut close to the bone though and won’t be to everyone’s taste. You might have more luck with the wine!
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, trans. Ross Ufberg
New Vessel Press pbk Feb. 2014