“Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In Gary Shteyngart’s brilliant novel Absurdistan, the narrator and protagonist Misha Vainberg is struggling – in vain, it seems, for most of the novel – to free himself from the “sins of the father.” His father, a post-Soviet Russian businessman whose corrupt profit schemes and murderous ruthlessness have come to haunt Misha, whose sole goal is to get back to New York to live with his Puerto Rican soulmate. Instead, he is stuck in his patriarchal homeland, held hostage by Immigration Services officers keeping tabs on his father’s criminal activities. Later, one of his father’s colleagues jokes that Misha’s father killed an Oklahoman (ruining Misha’s dreams for a renewed American visa) just to keep his son close, but Misha does not see it as a joke.

    The dizzying fates of chaos and circumstance, which eventually leave him stranded in Absurdistan, a Caspian Sea republic, seem to conspire, in his father’s honor, to keep Misha living within the Russian midst. Misha’s dream to live a simple life with his uneducated girlfriend Rouenna is in direct rebellion to his father’s wishes that he marry a Jewish girl and succeed him as oligarch in the “family business,” but throughout the novel, Misha seems to be running from both his heritage and his family expectations to carve his own path, however absurd that path may appear on the surface.

    In the first part of the novel, Misha finds himself living the life his father wants for him. He lives like an aristocrat in a huge St. Petersburg apartment, resting on the luxury of servants and extravagant comforts, while the surrounding city crumbles in poverty and despair. With no job or ambition to speak of, Misha thinks of founding a philanthropic mission to “save the children,” but this stratagem merely constitutes another (albeit more humanitarian) excess in his otherwise “superfluous man” existence, a prototype familiar to anyone versed in Russian literature and culture. In short, though highly intelligent and possessed of an American liberal arts education from Occidental College, Misha has learned only to throw his money around and live high on the hog, quite literally as a cultured pig.

    Although he appears genuinely to care for the humanitarian cause he hopes to serve (motivated in part by his pity for Rouenna’s native urban poverty), besides hiring a fleet of social workers and contracting a web designer, Misha does not show an active drive to build and run the service himself. When his father is suddenly killed (in revenge for his own assassinations, no doubt) and Misha is left all alone and stuck in a city he loathes, Misha slips into a serious depression, which culminates in the egregious decision to sleep with his recently widowed stepmother (a young “peasant” girl from the provinces who also evokes his pity). This extreme blunder marks the nadir of Misha’s desperation but also the beginning of his new awareness that he must leave Russia – and his father’s post-mortem grip on his future – at any cost.

    The second stage of the novel lands him in conflict-ridden Absurdistan, where Misha’s wealth and his dead father’s connections promise to secure him Belgian citizenship and a ticket out of the old Iron Curtain. His machinations, though hopeful at first, are soon thwarted by the collapse of Absurdistan’s government in a trumped-up coup attempt (later revealed to be staged) and a violent civil war between Sevo and Svani factions of the country’s Christian population for control of its natural resources (later revealed to be all but depleted). Here Misha finds two things that put him on the path to productivity and redemption: love and courage. Despite his wealth and connections, Misha’s gambit to survive his stay (now indefinite) in Svani City requires daring, cunning, and a newfound appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. The borders have shut down, violence rages in the streets, and refugees (including Misha) crowd into prostitute hovels at the Intourist Hotel, which doubles as a bomb shelter (the Hyatt has long been plundered).

    Meanwhile, Misha falls in love with a young tour guide, Nana Bragabagovana, who shows him the city’s modest charms and introduces him to delectable fresh sturgeon and ripe red tomatoes that capture his senses almost as aggressively as her beauty does his lust. As his relationship with her deepens and he becomes embroiled in the local politics (Nana’s father, a local kingpin, recruits him to serve as Minister of Multicultural Affairs in the post-coup government), he exercises his generosity and compassion, and for the first time, not by spending money. His inquiries and adventures reveal a civil conflict that is more than absurd – there is nothing real to fight over – it is fictitious. In these simultaneously bewildering and formative circumstances, he begins to plan his escape to the West with Nana, an objective that the reader somehow understands will never be consummated.

    On September 10, 2001, just as Misha hopes to cross the border toward his freedom, his attention turns back to his deep love for Rouenna and he decides to leave Nana behind (her father, Misha discovers, has plans to ambush their train and “kidnap” her back). And although readers can’t be sure Misha will fulfill this dream, his final email to Rouenna (as he composes it mentally) reveals how much his adventures have liberated him from his father’s loving but domineering hold on him, and from his own paralyzing superfluity. Emerging from his trials more self-assured and focused, Misha is ready to do right by Rouenna and come after her, to live with her, look after her education, and help her raise her child. The descent into absurdity and his short, but transformative tenure in Absurdistan have awakened in Misha a fresh purpose to living, not born of family guilt and spoiled entitlement, but sincere affection and a thirst for a new kind of freedom. Despite these promising tropes, however, Shteyngart is thoroughly rooted in the Russian tradition, and the fateful paring of Misha’s date and region of departure suggest that he will not be leaving Absurdistan any time soon.

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