Last month when I was in the US, I picked up a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan after reading about it in the Times. I’ve been reading it in little bursts between more serious stuff related to my research, and as a whole, I’ve been a little disappointed. The hype was strong, but it reminds me a little of Rushdie or Zadie Smith, but not quite as clever or well-written. It does, however, have its moments, which are more often than not pretty funny.
The fat protagonist of Shteyngart’s book, Misha Borisovich Vainberg, is a filthy (rich) Russian Jew who wants to go back to Brooklyn and meet his voluptuous African-American love. The only hitch is that the State Department won’t let him, because his defunct Dad once killed an American businessman. About 100 pages into the book, he decides to go to Absurdistan, an oil-rich Orthodox Caspian former Soviet Republic, so as to buy a Belgian passport. When he gets there, the situation is shaky, because the country is split into two ethnicities,the Svanï and the Sevo whose dispute is similar in nature to that of the inhabitants of Lilliput and Blefuscu. Misha arrives with his American friend Alyosha-Bob at the time when the Svanï disctator is about to appoint his son as his heir. At the Hyatt, he runs into an American official who just happens to have gone to college with him:
“So let’s talk politics, dog,” Alyosha-Bob said, changing the subject. “Word on the Absurdi street is that the Sevo are gonna go apeshit if Georgi Kanuk’s idiot son takes over. What’s the official U.S. position on this one?”
“We’re not really sure,” Josh Weiner admitted as he pillaged a bowl of complimentary smoked almonds. “We’ve got a little problem. See, none of our staff actually speak any of the local languages. I mean, there’s one guy who sort of speaks Russian, but he’s still trying to learn the future tense. You dogs are both from this part of the world. Do you know what’s gonna happen after Georgi Kanuk dies? More democracy? Less?”
“Whenever there’s any kind of upheaval in this country, the pistols come out,” Alyosha-Bob said. “Think of the Ottoman rebellion of 1756 or the Persian succession of 1550.”
“Oh, I can’t think that far back,” Josh Weiner said. “That was then, and this is now. We’re in a global economy. It’s in no one’s interests to rock the boat. Look at the stats, homeboys. The Absurdi GNP went up nine percent last year. The Figa-6 Chevron/BP oilfields are coming online in mid-September. That’s, like, a hundred and eighty thousand barrels a day! And it’s not just oil! The service sector’s booming, too. Did you see the new Tucson Steak and Bean Company on the Boulevard of National Unity? Did you try the ribolita soup and the crostini misti? This place has serious primary and reinvestment capital, dogs.”
When Misha brings up the ethnic divide, Weiner brushes the worry aside and says that the people of Absurdistan are pragmatists. He then introduces his Absurdi pet project, Sakha the Democrat, who is editor-in-chief of the American-funded journal, Gimme Freedom, and who begs Weiner to let him have the deluxe platter with fries for lunch. Weiner tells him that the democracy budget is slim these days so he should order his meal without fries.