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A Romp Through History

Alexander Motyl's comic novel with half-serious underpinnings

By 7.18.11

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The Jew Who Was Ukrainian: How One Man's Rip-Roaring Romp Through an Existential Wasteland Ended in a Bungled Attempt to Bump off the Exceptionally Great Leader of Mother Russia
By Alexander Motyl
(Cervena Barba Press, 186 pages, $16)

Alexander Motyl was clearly having great fun when he wrote his latest book, The Jew Who Was Ukrainian, a comic novel with half-serious historical underpinnings. It manages to amuse and challenge without losing its headlong momentum into the realm of absurdist literature.

A political science professor at Rutgers University, Motyl may be the only writer who has ever been able to find dark humor at the intersection of Nazi brutality, Stalin's gulag and violent Ukrainian nationalism. The story lurches from past to present and back, disregarding the constraints of chronology, but somehow one doesn't mind. It's a journey like no other.

Protagonist Volodymyr Frauenzimmer was born of a rape at the end of World War II when his mother was a Ukrainian Auschwitz guard who hates Jews and his father a Stalinist thug and Jew who hates Ukrainians. They married but lived in separate rooms and rarely spoke to each other. Thus the stage is set for Volodymyr's troubled childhood.

From an early age, Volodymyr felt he had a preposterous name (Frauenzimmer is an obsolete German term for "woman," now used only disparagingly) and a preposterous past. He is losing his grip on reality when he finds solace in the concept of hatred, however, and plots to kill the "exceptionally great leader of Mother Russia," a dictator named Pitoon, whom he hates the sight of.

Here Motyl demonstrates his control of events by swerving from fantasy to fact. He brings in real-life Jewish anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard who assassinated Ukrainian writer and nationalist leader Simon Petliura in Paris in 1926, for advice. Next comes Bohdan Stashynsky, a Ukrainian KGB hit man who killed two nationalist émigrés in Munich thirty years later.

They all end up in an animated discussion of history, guilt, criminality and restitution. Pitoon is never killed.

At one point Volodymyr tries to talk Lenin out of taking his famous sealed train to Petrograd, so that millions might live. Lenin dismisses the idea and says, "I am who I am… I'll send you a postcard from Mother Russia."

Motyl manipulates his prose in ways that his previous novels, scholarly works and op-ed writings never led us to expect. A taste of his style may be experienced in this excerpt from his concluding 330-word Proustian sentence:

"Close to despair… his rip-roaring romp through an existential wasteland on a relatively up-beat, if ultimately inconclusive, note that may, or may not, be reflective of the condition of humanity or of the intractability of history or of the inalterability of the past or of the irrelevance of the present, which goes by faster than the blink of an eye, or to the future, which doesn't exist until the moment it turns into the present, and, like the blink of an eye, becomes immediately transformed into the past …"

Motyl's comic side seems to be finding release after his long career in turgid academic writings and heavyweight punditry. His credentials include pieces in Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, American Spectator and Moscow Times. His grasp of the Ukrainian-Russian past is sure and sweeping.

An undercurrent of scorn for professorial lingo seeps through the prose. The hero searches for "epistemological solutions -- a move that some might endorse, some might reject, and few would comprehend, especially outside the withered groves of academe."

It was Motyl's gift for absurdist story-telling that impressed me most, beginning with characters' names. A spy who ultimately helps corner Volodymyr is named Katorga (the Czar's forced-labor camps), and others carry historical baggage as Pitoon, Dostaevsky, Putschkin, Vlassov and Deniquine. "Pitoon," he notes, rhymes with "spittoon." A Slovenian culturologist is named Zigzag. Puns and jokes in four languages pepper the text.

Witty asides keep the reader on his toes: "To Volodymyr's surprise, Dostaevsky's grip, unlike the plotting of his namesake's novels, was firm." A favorite meeting place in modern Moscow was "Gulag Grill" where the menu includes Lamb Lubyanka, Caviar à la Yezhov and the Martini Magadan.

Even Voltaire makes an entrance in this allusion to Candide: "I am learning wisdom, Volodymyr concluded. And from wisdom, he knew, there springs goodness and hope and all that other great stuff."

Motyl's vivid descriptions give his tale a surreal dimension: Pitoon had a "large, rounded forehead held taut by two slivers of sweet pink flesh, his ears." His long climb to respectability in the German secret police tested his determination. "He collected dissidents' soiled underpants, stored them in airtight jars, and used them to direct canine noses in the righteous struggle against ideological diversion and bourgeois subversion."

Pitoon's background revealed his narrow mind. When a woman thought she noticed a slight accent in his German and wrongly guessed that he was from Trieste, he immediately had her shot, "not because she was right but because she was dead wrong, and he took his expressions seriously."

As Volodymyr gets to know the devious Katorga, he discovers she is a Ukrainian Communist whose parents killed thousands for the cause. Katorga justifies the carnage: "You cannot, you know, make borscht without peeling beets."

Yet he is tortured by his past and dreams of destroying it. "Who can destroy history?" he asks. "One may be able to make it or remake it, but surely one cannot unmake it. The notion is preposterous…"

This book is preposterous, but in the good sense. The author has woven characters from our past into an object lesson on the meaning of history and why it's best to learn to deal with it, not change it. Volodymyr wonders at the end whether his efforts were worth the trouble. Might he have been wiser to have spent the time "more usefully and more fruitfully and certainly more profitably, going into the restaurant business or dressing well or buying tomatoes or something like that."

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.