Tanja Maljartschuk - With haiku-like precision, Tanja's deceptively simple writing style blends surrealism and magical realism with satirical wit, occasionally outlandish humor and poignant social commentary
Tanja Maljartschuk, A Biography of a Chance Miracle, Trans. by Zenia Tompkins, Cadmus Press, 2018.
read it at Google Books
A Biography of a Chance Miracle explores the life of Lena, a young girl growing up in the somewhat vapid, bureaucracy-ridden and nationalistic Western Ukrainian city of San Francisco. Lena is a misfit from early childhood due to her unwillingness to scorn everything Russian, her propensity for befriending forlorn creatures, her aversion to the status quo, and her fear of living a stupid and meaningless life. As her friends enter college, Lena sets forth on a mission to defend the abused and downtrodden of San Francisco--be they canine or human--armed with nothing more than an arsenal of humor, stubbornness, chutzpah and no shortage of imagination. Her successes are minimal at best, but in the process of trying to save San Francisco's collective humanity, she may end up saving her own. At first glance a crazy and combative girl, Lena just may be the salvation that the Ukrainians of San Francisco sorely need.
With haiku-like precision, Tanja's deceptively simple writing style blends surrealism and magical realism with satirical wit, occasionally outlandish humor and poignant social commentary. The German literary media has described her depictions of contemporary Ukraine as full of humor and absurdity, but "more exact and harsher" than those of her peers, comparing her to the 19th-century Russian satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin and hailing her as "a name to be remembered." This work, her most provocative to date, was a finalist for the 2012 BBC Book of the Year Award in Ukraine, and has been lauded as "simply ingenious" by fellow Ukrainian authors.
...a wonderful novel by one of the most talented and original contemporary Ukrainian literary voices -- Tanja Maljartschuk. You will irresistibly fall in love with the young protagonist, Lena, with her courage to face the harsh realities of life in her country, her charmingly optimistic and occasionally witty stubbornness in opposing the social forces of dominance and governance, and her idealistic determination to create a better world... - Zoran Zivkovic
…wise, loving and absurd. — Ericka Achermann
…Kafka and Thomas Bernhard send their regards… —Erich Klein
Here irony turns into sarcasm, the smile on your lips freezes… This is a wonderful and at once bitter book, a screaming indictment in prose…Lena rises above this tristesse, a female Don Quixote of the humiliated and affronted, like a hovering Chagallian angel… — Sabine Berking
…a great talent has entered onto the stage of world literature here!” —Anne Hahn
With a surprisingly laconic wisdom, the young author manages to expose the entire absurdity of today’s Ukraine… A new strong voice—which, despite its youth, has already found its own style—has entered the literary scene here… —Andreas Pittler
A Biography of a Chance Miracle amounts to a biography of Lena (who insists on that name, rather than the Ukrainian variants everyone wants to impose on her, Olena or Olenka), who grows up, and struggles, in the newly independent Ukraine. The narrator only reveals herself very late in the novel, but her account is closely based on Lena's own memories -- though she also includes some bits and pieces that Lena remains unaware of and unfamiliar with, to round out the account.
Above all else, Lena is obstinate, from early childhood on. She has strong opinions, and a clear sense of right and wrong, and doesn't necessarily think of possible consequences as she plows ahead. In childhood and youth, these set her somewhat apart, but don't seem particularly atypical. When she can't get into any of the university departments she hopes to study at -- philosophy being her top choice -- but rather winds up in the dreaded physical education department (and even that only thanks to a bribe), it's clear her adult life won't shape up much different. She eventually does find a variety of causes, which she throws herself wholeheartedly and, occasionally, even quite successfully into, notably "canine homelessness" (as she is horrified to find out how the stray pet population in her hometown is being dealt with) and then the treatment of the disabled, specifically as it pertains to a childhood friend of hers whom she makes it her mission to help.
Lena wants to be a savior -- not of the world, as she realistically understands that there's only so much one can do, but at least in some small ways. Among her more harebrained ideas is that of selling miracles -- she's confident enough in her abilities to see herself as a miracle-worker -- but in modern-day Ukraine no one even believes in miracles any longer (though they're gullible about all sorts of other quackery, as Lena discovers) and she can't find any takers.
Lena does have some ambition:
She simply wanted to be someone, someone specific -- not very great, but not small either -- and she wanted to do something.
If something of an innocent in the ways of the world (or at least this Ukrainian world), she's not entirely guileless. And, as she explains to her college roommate:
"I always wanted to help people."
"You don't want to help them! You want to swindle them!"
"You're right -- swindle them in order to help them. That's my goal !"
Lena is certain she knows what's best and right, and storms ahead trying to convince everyone else of it. She meets with some success -- her dog campaign gets lots of attention and makes her a minor celebrity -- but also comes up against bureaucracy and the powers that be that are almost impossible to truly conquer.
From early on, Lena also wants to escape, with ambitions of getting to America. Or out of the Ukraine, at least. She can't help herself, however, and the pull of everything that needs to be done back home keeps her from making good her escape -- even when, at one point, she's practically on the bus that could get her out of this sinkhole.
The backdrop to this all is, of course, the newly independent Ukraine Lena grows up and lives in. Others -- like her parents -- still remember previous, older eras, Soviet or even Habsburg times; for Lena: "There was just this one". She lives in a small Ukrainian city called San Francisco, and the novel follows its transformations in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union, from her parents losing their jobs and trying to find new ways of making do (a buckwheat farm is one almost inspired plan they go all-in on, falling only ever so slightly (yet still catastrophically) short of making a success of it) to the shifting commercial sphere:
In 1996, everything definitely went to pieces and San Francisco sank into the black waters of the free market.
From modern-day bureaucracy to Ukrainian nationalism, racism, and corruption, A Biography of a Chance Miracle covers a great deal, maintaining a light-hearted tone -- not defeatist, but stoical, with Lena's outbursts of action standing in effective contrast to the general attitude.
In its somewhat anecdotal presentation, A Biography of a Chance Miracle doesn't quite have the flow of a usual life-progression-story; a few too many threads dangle too loosely, including Lena's parents who pop up and out throughout the story. There are connections -- even from the near stand-alone opening spectacular (Lena's teacher making a memorable exit) --, and the idea of a flying miracle-worker, whose existence Lena firmly believes in, despite its unlikeliness, that repeatedly crops up helps bring the story to a nice close, but there's perhaps a bit too much of the episodic adventure-story to the novel as a whole.
A Biography of a Chance Miracle isn't quite a picaresque -- Lena is too (if not entirely ...) harmlessly innocent for that --, nor is she entirely quixotic. Maljartschuk spells out the closest parallel, when the narrator describes first meeting Lena:
The first thing that Lena said to me was, "If Schneider himself were to come from Switzerland now to have a look at his former pupil and patient, then even he would wave his hand dismissively and say, 'Idiot !'"
What that was supposed to mean, I don't know. Presumably it was some quote, but I still haven't been able to figure out from where.
(Maljartschuk announcing it and spelling it out so loudly like this is an example of how she doesn't quite trust her writing, or the reader, enough; a bit more subtlety would have served her well throughout the book.)
Lena isn't quite Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin either, but her story does resemble his in significant ways, and she is a similarly engaging, hopeless character.
A Biography of a Chance Miracle is an appealing take on modern-day Ukraine, and a nice little life-of tale. A bit rough in some of the presentation and writing, it's still a vivid and entertaining story, with just enough poignancy to it. - M.A.Orthofer
Tanja Maljartschuk’s A Biography of a Chance Miracle is a novel following the life of Lena, a girl living in a provincial Ukrainian town nicknamed San Francisco by its long-suffering locals. The story takes us from her early years, including some turbulent times at school and a loss of faith in her teens, before showing us what has become of her as an adult, with Lena forced to confront the realities of a world that doesn’t match up to the dreams she had of it.
However, what should be a rather bleak tale of a wasted life in a dull backwater is actually a rather entertaining affair. Lena isn’t a woman to dwell on the dark side of life, and she makes the most of the limited opportunities that come her way, at times creating them herself. There’s another reason why hers is a life less ordinary, though, as strange things seem to happen when she’s around, whether it’s the mysterious case of her disappearing kindergarten teacher or the story of a mysterious angel who seems to be following her around. Lena is certainly a resourceful woman, but even she won’t turn down help from above.
While A Biography of a Chance Miracle focuses very much on the young woman, the novel is really all about Ukraine in the post-Soviet era. Maljartschuk sets her character against a backdrop of a country where in order to survive, the people need to become resourceful and independent as quickly as possible. In such an environment, as Lena discovers, the notions of good and evil take on a slightly different meaning:
There were all kinds of people and all kinds of stories. Lena did her best to file all of them away in her head for statistical purposes in order to some day, down the road, understand where evil came from. At the time, it all seemed to come from poverty. Someone who’s constantly thinking about money doesn’t have the time to work on himself in order to become better because it’s easy to be evil. You don’t have to exert yourself to be evil. But being good, on the other hand, requires a little effort. You have to have a clear head, sleep a minimum of eight hours a day, eat healthy, work out, and take walks in the fresh air, preferably in some park. Per Lena’s modest statistics, people in her immediate world didn’t do any of this.
(Cadmus Press, 2018)
There are certainly a fair few scoundrels introduced over the course of the book, but Lena somehow comes through fairly intact, even if her morals aren’t always quite what we’d expect.
Initially, Lena is unbowed by the pressures of the corrupt society she lives in. Despite falling in with a group of fascists at university, she goes her own way, befriending a Jamaican student who has somehow found his way to Ukraine (and striking back at them when they attempt to discipline her for her subversive ways). Standing up to the evil of bureaucracy is a different matter, though, and when she discovers a childhood friend in need of help, even her boundless enthusiasm and energy will founder on the rock of governmental Catch-22s…
One of the strengths of A Biography of a Chance Miracle is its light touch, with what could have been a grey tale enlivened by humorous touches. Maljartschuk takes us through the town and introduces us to its inhabitants, and we spend our time strolling through the bazaar where many of them make a living, chatting to the professor flogging second-hand goods on the side, or being introduced to the quack making money from diagnosing fake illnesses. Even the fascist student movement has its comical side, showing its pettiness in its announcements:
It was then that the Resistance Movement issued an operational directive prohibiting ny relations whatsoever between foreigners and Ukrainian girls. In reality, the directive pertained only to Ishion and Lena because Ishion was the only foreigner in town and Lena was the only one who talked to him at all. (p.103)
However, Maljartschuk manages to alter the mood successfully as Lena’s youthful optimism is gradually ground down. While she may have got away with being a free spirit for a while, the state eventually catches up with her, and the reader sympathises with her frustrations, with even small victories followed by crushing defeats in her quest to obtain the benefits her friend is lawfully entitled to.
For the most part, A Biography of a Chance Miracle is an entertaining read, but it doesn’t always quite hit the mark. While Tompkins’ translation reads well, the writing is probably a little simple for my preferences. In addition, despite the late reappearance of one of the characters introduced in the first few chapters, the story can appear a tad too episodic at times, one story following another without too much connecting them. It is a novel, but there are times when it’s more like a collection of short stories featuring the same characters, and for me the book was occasionally caught between the two structures.
Overall, though A Biography of a Chance Miracle is an interesting look at life in post-Soviet Ukraine, showing how one woman does her best in the face of a lack of work and opportunities. Hard work and intelligence will only get you so far in a society dominated by vested interests, but as Lena discovers, if you work at it, things might just turn out well – particularly if you believe in miracles. - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2018/05/28/a-biography-of-a-chance-miracle-by-tanja-maljartschuk-review/
Tania Maljartschuk is one of the most prolific and audacious young authors currently writing in Ukrainian, whose hallmark style blends searing social commentary with heartwarming humor and an appreciation for the human condition. The author of eight books of prose, her work has been translated into ten languages and is widely available in German. Tanja's writing has been supported by various governmental and private fellowships from the Chancellery of Austria, the Academy of the Arts of Berlin, the Polish Ministry of Culture and KulturKontakt Austria, among others. She is a past winner of the Joseph Conrad Korzienowski Literary Prize (Poland-Ukraine) and the Kristal Vilencia Award (Slovenia). A Biography of a Chance Miracle, Tanja's first novel and sixth book, was a finalist for the prestigious BBC Book of the Year Award in Ukraine, an award she subsequently won in 2016 for her novel Forgottenness. Individual stories of Tanja's are available in English in the anthologies Best European Fiction, Herstories and Women in Times of Change, as well as in literary magazines such as World Literature Today ("The Demon of Hunger"), Words Without Borders, Belletrista ("Canis Lupus Famliaris") and Apofenie ("Losers Want More"). A Biography of a Chance Miracle is Tanja's first book to be made available in English; an English translation of her novel Forgottenness is in progress.