Translated from German by Eva Bacon
Winner of the 2012 Klaus Michael Kühne Award
Winner of the 2012 Anna Seghers Award
I have no idea if all Russians love birch trees. I suspect not. The phase appears towards the end of the novel in a dialogue warning against generalisations of this kind. Which does not negate the fact that the issue of national identity is a prime concern of this debut novel.
Like the author, Masha, the main protagonist, was born in Azerbaijan and fled with her family to Germany to escape the ethnic conflict which broke out during the breakup of the USSR. She grows up in Frankfurt. As the novel begins, Masha is living with her boyfriend, Elias. They have a good, if not, wholly perfect relationship. Arguments are sparked when Elias questions Masha about her past – something terrible, which Masha is incapable of processing, happened during her escape from Azerbaijan. She does not wish to think or speak of it. Yet Elias’s death, following a serious footballing injury, opens up the scars which Masha has so carefully stitched together.
Scars not only relating to those traumatic events, but relating to her past love life – it seems Masha never got over her first love, Sami, who remains in the picture, flitting between Frankfurt and California, visas permitting, where he is studying for his Ph.D. Then there’s her friend, Cem, always there with a shoulder to cry on and she needs that, even tbough she is an accomplished lady. Fluent in 5 languages, she has always “got on with it” and has not let her Jewish background either hinder or help her. Yet following Elias’s death, emotionally adrift she decides to take a job in Israel, ostensibly to provide experience prior to becoming a translator in the UN. Subconsciously, I think, it is an attempt to anchor herself in her Jewishness.
Whereas the racial identifiers in her life could be relegated to the background in Frankfurt (though not those of her Muslim friends), this is not the case in Israel, where the Palestinian question pervades every moment, every conversation. She meets Ori and Tal, brother and sister, he an Israeli soldier, she an activist on behalf of the Palestinians. Masha becomes involved with both, which leads her into dangerous emotional and political territories.
I confess I’m somewhat puzzled by this novel. I understand it as a study of PTSD and grief. Masha suffers from flashbacks and panic attacks, is frequently irrational and often dependent on her friends for support. I am bemused by her irresistibility to the opposite sex. Her male friends are always at her beck and call and willing to travel across the world to her at the drop of an anguished phone call. Would her vulnerability cause that? As for the significance of all the racial and ethnic content, is the point that these boxes serve only to divide the human race? Certainly Masha’s exploration of her Jewishness fails to provide her with a long term solution for her distress.
That said, the novel is quickly read and certainly well regarded in Bremen and Düsseldorf. The libraries in those two cities nominated All Russians Love Birch Trees for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Prize, which is how it first came to my attention. And the reason I’ve reviewed it today? Because tomorrow sees the publication of the longlist for the 2017 prize. Hopefully new German discoveries await.