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From Russia with Love – and duct tape

Panic in a Suitcase

By Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Riverhead

308 pages, $27.95

By Stephanie Shapiro

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“(Sveta) resembled an impossible bird, one that had fallen out of its nest in infancy. . . . healed well but idiosyncratically, and been adopted into a family of squirrels not without their own issues. When Pasha caught sight of her, he watched in stunned admiration.”

Thus, the author, halfway through “Panic in a Suitcase,” puts a central relationship into some kind of perspective, a skewed view, as befits this wacky take on the characters’ cracked-mirror lives. They plod through various challenges in Part One 1993 in “Little Odessa,” a section of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, and later in Odessa itself in Part Two 2008.

The two Odessas have enough in common – duct tape repairs on the fence, for example – to keep the feckless strivers going around in circles, always funny, always underplayed. During some misfortune, “Pasha stayed home due to let’s not get into it.” When such phrases recall characters like, say, Molly Goldberg, the contrast in settings shows how different the old TV show’s approach is from these lives.

Life in Brooklyn can be confusing, causing Pasha to just stay overnight in Manhattan rather than find the correct bus and train that could take him home. (Little Odessa’s subway runs aboveground.)

Pasha has stayed behind in old Odessa but agrees to visit his relatives as they build new lives. Little Odessa gets its name from the large number of Russian-speaking immigrants, many of them survivors of the Holocaust, who settled there after World War II and also after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Their lives have always been somewhat off kilter in one way or another. The area also was a hotspot of the Russian mob, until about the mid-1980s.

So the young – well, more like middle-aged – post-Soviet poet Pavel Robertovich Nesmertov is visiting from Odessa and passively resisting his family’s pressure to stay here and start over in Little Odessa. Sveta is his second wife. The first, Nadia, aka the Second Akhmatova, quits writing and steeps herself in “Banal, prepackaged sentiments neatly wrapped with a bow on top, like she got them at the resentful-wife store.” Anna Akhmatova, Russia’s iconic poet, is safe from Nadia’s competition for now.

he characters, although Soviet Jewish refugees, don’t do anything recognizably Jewish or particularly Russian in their new haven of Brighton Beach. They’re like generic East Europeans, or displaced Irish or Italian immigrants. Nor are they quaint peasants from “Fiddler on the Roof.” In old Odessa, Little Odessa or even at a bizarre poets’ convention in Tbilisi, stereotypes never appear. Even Pasha won’t stay true to type: he has converted to Russian Orthodoxy and has amassed a collection of religious icons, gold-accented paintings of the saints, which annoy the rest of the family.

Pasha’s parents were medical professionals in the Old Country; his fans tell him he’s the greatest living Russian poet because he is the most hated. The family members adapt to American life, more or less, and Akhtiorskaya’s description of the ladies’ locker room at a spa shows no mercy. The customers have “tans so deep they must have had extra layers of skin.”

The characters are truly intellectuals but rather less brilliant than they believe themselves to be. Pasha says he loves Sveta so much that he would spurn Akhmatova, for her. She ups the ante: she would leave Boris Pasternak (think “Dr. Zhivago”) for him. So far, so nothing. But they both know that Pasternak, although already married, had proposed to Akhmatova several times, in vain. These flawed writers know what they aspire to and how far from fulfillment their dreams have carried them so far.

Something always goes wrong. To celebrate Pasha’s visit, the family plans a picnic, and sure enough, a tornado hits the Brooklyn beach, with comical consequences as everyone flees the beach and crowds into a nearby nursing home for shelter.

Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and came to Brooklyn when she was 7 years old. She spent her childhood in Brighton Beach. She has the same understated, wry but droll point of view that comedian Yakov Smirnoff had, and tends more toward historic Russian writing. Yes, there is such a thing as a Russian joke, usually at the expense of government, but Russian humor is more likely to come out of a complicated and carefully set up background and create comical, ironic situations in incongruous events. In the late 18th century, Lt. Kije was a fictitious military officer concocted by bureaucrats to cover their mistakes. He eventually is honored by the Tsar, so they have to kill him off. Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” dies of fright before her assailant can force her to tell him the secret of her success at cards. Her revenge is to appear to him after her death and tell him the secret. He plays the wrong card, wouldn’t you know, and goes mad. Not a thigh slapper, but that’s the idea. The Marx brothers came to mind, though, at the scene in the nursing home.

Akhtiorskaya makes her points with a light enough touch. “My cousins,” Nadia complains, “who are very sickly from Chernobyl, come and go as they please … They’re sensitive to light, to heat, to moisture in the air, to feathers, citrus fruit, drafts, the least echo of music. I’m not the picture of health myself, but to compare … I manage the best I can.” So rather than belaboring the truly disastrous results of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, she introduces it as a housekeeping problem. She leaves it to us to imagine the horror. Less dire than Chernobyl, pollution at the Odessa airport makes the air seem almost solid, and everyone seems to smoke all the time.

It is not too big a stretch to mention Vladimir Nabokov, whose satiric novel “Pnin” paid the bills while he ran around everywhere, trying to get someone, anyone, to publish “Lolita.” Pnin is also a feckless intellectual, trying to get hired at a university something like Cornell despite constant misadventures. Pasha isn’t Pnin but Akhtiorskaya’s career is off to a brilliant start in this polished and accomplished first novel.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.