In an off moment I decided to do a little experimentation and figured out how to surf Google Russia using (what else?) Russian. I went to one of the Russian web sites that mentions my books, copied my name to the clipboard, and since I installed Cyrillic on my Mac as a system font, it was able to paste the right characters into the search pane at Google.ru.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or even if I was expecting anything at all. I’m a realist at heart, and I frequently recall Wesley’s admonition from The Princess Bride: “Get used to disappointment.”
So I clicked the Russian equivalent of Search and got a whole bunch of hits. Clicked on the first one, expecting a book store listing.
Well, this is interesting, I thought. So I tried another one. Another review. And another. Before long, I’d collected half a dozen reviews for one or the other Pembroke Hall books, all from news or literature web sites. This was, I should note, more than I saw ten years ago when the books were coming out in my native tongue (and while I’m at it, let me add to that – I’ve also gotten more response from Russian readers about these books than from English-speaking readers).
Not all of the reviews were positive – at least from what I could tell given the torturous translations that Babelfish and/or Paralink put them through (the former seemed to be the most understandable, but crashed more – the latter was more reliable, but missed more words).
Here’s some of what I found, with highlights:
“And No Happy Ending!” Critic Anna Andersen delights in Boddekker’s Demons, and in the comments section a fake Joe Clifford Faust writes in and offers to write a new novel for her. So I put in a comment saying that I was much nicer than the impostor made me out to be. This one came out the clearest in all of the translations, which speaks volumes for Anna’s writing ability.
“Their urine, reptiles!” The Bookshop Window, which previously gave a nice nod to Ferman, tackles Boddekker, saying it was as if the two books were part of the same story (!). The strange headline (“Their urine, reptiles!”) is repeated at the end of the review along with some words that didn’t make the trip into English. I suspect it was a Russian idiomatic version of one of the parodistic catch phrases in the novel.
“The given novel is a fertile field” is a reader’s review that concludes that Ferman is a “desirable read” with something for everyone.
“one calorie for the mind” This was the most difficult to understand of all the articles, again, probably because of the original source. It isn’t a positive review, but it didn’t seem to be blisteringly negative, either. I don’t think. I’m not sure.
“Who is Guilty?” This is a scholarly article about two recently published books with similar themes: Ferman and a British novel called Popcorn by Ben Elton. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Mr. Elton is a writer best known (in my frame of reference, anyway), for his work with Rowan Atkinson on Mr. Bean and the Blackadder series. Which thrills me to death.
What’s fascinating about this is that every review digs down into the book. The English language reviews I got talked about superficial things in the books, but these dig down into themes and influences and meanings. Since the Devils live in a demolished church building, they are in essence fallen angels. People flock to buy the products they advertise, but the irony is that they’re not an authentic street gang, not really – only Ferman could be considered a true street kid. As an author I applied the “pamphlets of my religion” to ad culture… the list goes on.
This whole thing thrilled my daughter. She’s fresh into literary novel awareness after being forced to endure Beloved by Toni Morrison, so she was grilling me about some of this last night: “Did you put that meaning into the book?” “No” “See! It’s a literary novel!” She couldn’t wait to get to school this morning so she could tell her English teacher that her Father was a literary figure in Russia (and she’s ready to pack her bags and go over).
My wife and I discussed this a bit last night. Part of it might be the whole “prophet without honor” thing, wherein I had to find an audience outside of my native tongue to be appreciated. That it happened in Russia is delicious. They’re new to the whole concept of capitalism, and from what we’ve gathered from talking to some natives we know, they admittedly have a streak in them that celebrates, or perhaps is simply fascinated by, suffering (for example, in Moscow On The Hudson, Robin Williams gives a brilliant little speech about how they embrace their misery and keep it as their own).
Whatever the reason, I’m still trying to keep this all in proper perspective. It’s nice to have the books appreciated and what I was understood – it’s like finally, someone “gets it.” Yeah, I know that no doubt there are people here who “got it.” But these folks are writing about it.
My wife said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Russians ended up being the ones who make the books into a movie?”
Funny, yes. Ironic, yes. And fitting somehow, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it has something to do with the reptile urine.
And to Anna Andersen, who responded to my impostor-debunking comment, I say: I love you as a cat sour cream, too.
Listening: Ben Folds Five, “Don’t Change Your Plans” (via iTunes shuffle play)