||Back in the USSR
by Keith Nickson
S0, YOU WANT PLOT? YOU want some magic and miracles too, maybe with some Jewish humour on the side? My guess would be that the Montreal novelist and translator David Homel's baroque fairy tale Sonya & Jack will do the trick. It's an ambitious and exotic tale of Jewish-American immigrant life with a twist- this time the immigrants return to the Soviet Union seduced by the romance of socialism.
Homel's novel opens with an enticing seduction of its own. The narrator, heir to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, grabs us quickly by the lapel:
I have come to celebrate the adventurers who gave birth to me, not assassinate them ... Why would I do that, since they have endowed me with such rich and complex gifts? 0ne of which is a gift for jokes, for stories if you like. Like the one I am going to tell you
And tell stories he does. About Jack Gesser, a philosopher of the Russian-Jewish sort who sells watermelons and yearns for a real vocation. About Sonya Freedman, a Hungarian immigrant. She is passionate, iconoclastic, and open to adventure. In early 1930s Chicago, they meet Mitchell Berg, a Russian propagandist who runs the People's College of Trades and Vocations; or in the narrator's parlance a "school for disgruntled immigrants." In these opening chapters, Homel brings Chicago to gritty life, with its pool halls, drifting workers, families endlessly searching for cheaper rooms. Homel also introduces a vivid supporting cast:
Spielerman, Sonya's sort-of husband who plays "Schwartze and Yid music" on the clarinet; the Poklub family, headed by a mad, gravedigger father; and friends of Jack's from Steinstein's Leisure Palace and Poolroom. Jack and Sonya both rent rooms from the Poklubs and quickly become lovers.
Homel injects some adrenaline into this already brisk story when Berg sends Jack and Sonya to Haiti to recover some jewels, no less. This episode seems strange and incredible after the measured descriptions of Chicago. It's hard to say whether Homel's Haiti is a successful rendering of that paranoid time and place or an over-the-top, twisted version of Graham Greene's Haitian landscapes, one designed to disorient the reader.
Jack, Homel advises, is one of those "fearful, restless spirits wandering in search of a soul to inhabit, a being that had stepped out of a fairytale In keeping with his taste for the fantastic, Jack persuades Sonya to return with him to the Soviet Union. Like other communists from the West, Jack and Sonya are initially welcomed as "Foreign Specialists" and given work in Moscow. Sonya toils for the Moscow Daily News, run by their old Chicago comrade Mitchell Berg. Jack finds pleasure working as a lathe operator and knowing he is finally in "the centre of history."
As Stalin tightens his stranglehold on the Soviet Union, Sonya and Jack's romantic entanglements, with each other and with socialism, come to an end. Jack is dispatched to a labour camp and Sonya, who now has a child, is sent off to the Central Asian city of Alma-Ata.
After the deprivations of Moscow, Homel's description of Alma-Ata has a delicious texture: "The tall, graceful, willowy women with swaying curtains of black hair... Their men who ate mutton, dressed in sheepskin and played games with dice fashioned from sheep's thigh bones."And let me promise you, there's more plot yet to come.
The shifts in this story may sound jarring when lumped together in a plot summary. Homel, however, usually makes the transitions smooth and entirely credible. For the reader, knowing that the story is based partly on real events gives the adventure a relentless kinetic power. In his third novel, Homel has pushed beyond the scope of Electrical Storms and Rat Palms and has written a significantly richer book in which his prose style exhibits a bravado and playfulness that sets the novel apart from other Canadian immigrant tales. Nonetheless, the character of Sonya made me squirm at times. With her lusty appetites and lack of intellectual depth, Sonya emerges as a stock figure out of male sexual fantasy. Several -- albeit brief -- descriptions of Sonya's body read like rehashed Victorian erotica.
As with all fairy tales, there are miraculous turns of events and characters who meet grim ends. Homel's effervescent prose keeps it all bubbling along. Readers can float along for the entertainment or swim a little deeper for meaning ... if they wish.
The central question seems to be: where does Jack Gesser, "rotten with memory" really belong? In pre-revolutionary Russia, he suffers from pogroms and longs for emancipation. In Chicago, he is an itinerant thinker without a future. Back in the Soviet Union, he is perhaps the ideal Soviet Man, yet his Jewish blood and his foreignness finally betray him. Other Jews, like Spielerman, find a "soul to inhabit" by adapting to American ways. Once enamoured of klezmer music, Spielerman becomes the "king of cathouse jazz...." In one of his darker moments, Jack wonders: "Spielerman, the chameleon jew. Is that the only way for the jew to prosper -- to lose himself?"