Tumarkin, M.(2010). Otherland. A Journey with my Daughter. Vintage Books: Sydney.

6 05 2010

All emigrations are traumatic. They all involve some degree of uprooting. “Deracination” is the word for it –  when you’re displaced from your native or accustomed environment  and sent hurtling into an alien space.

Yet all emigrations are differently traumatic. Some are forced, necessitating a violent wrenching of the spirit. Some are precipitated by the wish/dream/belief that life can be better somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a matter of escape, pure life-and-limb stuff, where the past becomes a no-go-zone, and all that matters is looking ahead. Sometimes, the emigration has the tincture of exile, a kind of limbo status, neither here nor there. Sometimes, the exit might begin as a matter of historical circumstance, and later it’s all about a wistful nostalgia, the hope of reunion with loved ones, somewhere, someplace, a life lived in perpetual displacement.

In Maria Tumarkin’s case the past is not just another country, but one that no longer exists. The Soviet Union that she left in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of Communism, changed irrevocably. So when she returns, some twenty years later, she arrives in an entirely different landscape. This journey, which she undertook with her daughter, is the substance of Otherland.

Painfully aware of having been absent, she writes: “I was not there when my generation was cornered by history”. When a supposedly monolithic super-empire imploded, seemingly overnight, its people emerged blinking and shell-shocked in the daylight, then disintegrated  into multiple fractious ethnic enclaves, fully stocked with all the old internecine prejudices and hatreds, among them anti-Semitism. It is into this messy world of upheaval, where the rule book has been tossed out but the new one not yet written, that Tumarkin takes herself, her daughter and her reader.

The literary beauty of Otherland is essentially textual. Multiple layers of memory and reflection, intertwining historical commentary, cultural and literary criticism, and personal reminiscence. At once a road trip of anecdotes peppered with yearning and longing as well as a politico-cultural window on a huge part of twentieth century history  – the Soviet Empire, from the Revolution, to the War, to the post-war proxy satellite wars (Budapest, Prague, Warsaw), to the fall of the Iron Curtain,  to post-Communist Russia, in all its heady lawless turbulence. Somewhere in there was a moment of glasnost.

The reader’s challenge is to stay with the surface narrative while simultaneously being seduced down cultural, historical, political and literary side-roads. Then you realize that the gold is in the off-centre commentaries, the interstitial moments, when a sentence or two, or a phrase in brackets, or a wry aside to the reader, sums up an entire era.  Highly subjective, and unashamedly so, the personal and the political intertwine, just as they do in life, if not always in history books.

Indeed, several stories nest tightly within the larger one. Most immediately, there’s the personal narrative of a woman travelling with her feisty Australian-born, teenage daughter Billie (after Billie Holliday, and defiantly not an Irina or Olga) “back” to the place that once was home to the author-mother. From the outset we enter the tightly constricted world of mother-daughter dialogue where the hopes and expectations of one generation collide with the burgeoning free spirit of the next. The book is suffused in this relationship richness, a hallmark of Tumarkin’s writing.

It’s also an imaginative journey back in time, back to Tumarkin’s mother’s generation, pregnant with multiple heard stories that now find their first dramatic backdrop and dress rehearsal. In refusing to believe, as many children do, that their parents were born old, Tumarkin comes to know them as if for the first time.

For Tumarkin herself, the return trip is yet another story – it’s how she comes to understand, why her parents “took the biggest leap of faith” and left everything behind.  Not for “sausages and whitegoods” (her demeaning expression for the lure of consumerism). “They just wanted someone in our family to [be able to] think of freedom as a birthright”.

Exile has its rewards, but the price is high.

This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 1-2 May, 2010