Mark Twain once joked that God created war so Americans could learn geography. Luckily for us, humanity countered with a solution of its own: translation.
I believe most Americans, upon hearing the word “Moldova,” tend to think of a particularly nasty type of fungus that grows in the interspaces between toes, rather than a sovereign European nation. But a nation it is, and prominent among its thinkers and writers is Vladimir Lorchenkov, who writes in Russian and whose novel The Good Life Elsewhere I recently translated for New Vessel Press.
The plot of The Good Life Elsewhere casts a wide net, but the main fish are two friends, Serafim Botezatu and Vasily Lungu, from the small and impoverished town of Larga. These friends, along with most of the villagers, are desperate to reach Italy, where there are jobs (albeit under the table) to be had for able bodies. Because of geopolitical realities, visas are out of the question. Thus, the men resort to anything and everything to make it to the Promised Land: they risk their necks to reach a better life, by land, water, and air. The novel is to some extent a book of male companionship; women from that region are heavily trafficked in the international sex slave trade, and even when they’re not being forced to work as prostitutes, they’re often performing grueling manual labor in other people’s homes. Or, while their men are away, the women are at home, surviving on remittances from abroad. Relationships of all stripes are a struggle. This, then, is the gist of The Good Life Elsewhere: it is a fictional plot which unfortunately touches many raw nerves in real people. Our era of worldwide mobility and connectivity is not always pretty. This novel shows us a global Lady Luck with her makeup smudged, her dress torn, her children hungry and in tears.
Owing much to a comic tradition that touches Voltaire, Gogol, Hasek and Heller, Lorchenkov writes with admirable stylistic range. His prose is clean; he mixes the plangent howl of despair with precise comic timing. He is macabre at times, but the absurd and his various flights of fantasy don’t let the narrative trap the reader in a tissue box. In the opening pages of The Good Life Elsewhere, a woman prepares to hang herself from a tree, believing that fellow villagers will ultimately save her. She’s wrong: she’s left swinging in the breeze by her embittered husband. This is not funny. And yet – it’s funny. It seems to me that the more horrifying things creep into one’s life, the more one’s humor edges that way, too:
“I’m off to hang myself, Vasily,” she said to her husband, holding back tears. “Our life is darkness. I’m tired.”
“Don’t even think about climbing up the walnut tree,” he said, without glancing up from his pocket Bible. “Or I’ll take you down off there and beat you to death. You’re going to break off the lower branches, and that’s where the nuts grow biggest.”
There are also several chapters written in the tradition of a medieval religious chronicle. I had to strike a delicate balance, finding equivalent language without losing the wry humor of the original (an element certainly absent from real religious chronicles):
Further, Tudor said, one can reach that state of existence [paradise] without paying four thousand euros, without clergy and without Holy Crusades. We spat and crossed ourselves upon hearing these abominations, and summoned Satan to burn the wretched Tudor verily with speed.
And the heart of the burned one, and his black ashes, we tossed into the waters of the Dniepr River, so that even the memory of Old Man Tudor the heretic would be washed away.
Another challenging passage was the “recipe” that features in the novel as the winning entry in a local newspaper contest. The “recipe” (and you’ll see why I use quotes here) was written by a woman who just watched her husband, Jan, die after he performed a botched kidney transplant on himself. Jan had previously been the victim of an organ-trafficking racket—quite a real fact on the ground in Moldova—and was attempting to transplant a pig organ into his system as a remedy. His wife, upon seeing the fresh kidneys atop a bag of ice—where her husband was keeping them for a few hours, according to correct medical procedure, to cool— brought them into her house and innocently cooked them. Her husband was left with a gaping mortal wound and nothing to fill it in with. The blooming gourmand writes:
Steep the kidneys in five cups of water … like a newborn baby in the tears of your heart. Rub salt into them as you would into the wounds of your heart after recalling an offense, and let them gather pity in the kitchen. Don’t forget to cover them with cheesecloth. When the second hour chimes, sentence them to death or baptism, depending on your perspective. Drown them in clean water. Drown them without remorse, for they will be resurrected in the deluge of boiling water on the burner. When they are boiled and become as soft as you were a week before your wedding, ruthlessly cut them with a knife sharp as fury, cold as ice, grey as steel.
No easy task for the translator. How to communicate the grimness of it all, to maintain the grotesque and grandiose metaphor without lampooning it? That entire chapter, less than a page, required no less than fifteen drafts. For this, and other difficulties along the way, I resorted to a wide range of resources: folks with a good ear for the spoken word, scholarship on Medieval Russian chronicles, literary cookbooks and, most important of all, a group of translators who pulled no punches in pointing out areas where my solitary efforts failed. Communal solutions have made this a much better English novel.
Lorchenkov’s prose is a garden of delights. My task, as I saw it, was to bring The Good Life Elsewhere across borders, over an ocean, and into another botanist’s realm without letting the petals droop. And if, after coming to the end of The Good Life Elsewhere the reader can place Moldova on the map, score one for humankind.