Years ago, I read in the newspaper that a rather surprising number of Jews from the lands of the former Soviet Union were emigrating to Germany. Considering that nation’s role in the Holocaust, it seems hard to fathom that Jews, when finally offered the chance to freely leave the USSR, would opt for Germany as a future home. But if my feeble memory serves me right, because of that nation’s generous social welfare system, political freedoms and willingness to atone for the horrible sins of its past, a significant number of Jews from across the former USSR were flocking to Germany. As I’ve said before, history is seldom without a sense of irony.
This surprising bit of human migration is the inspiration for Olga Grjasnowa’s 2014 debut novel All Russians Love Birch Trees. Her novel tells the story of Masha, a 20-something, largely non-practicing Jewish woman. Originally from Azerbaijan, Masha resides in Frankfort, Germany with her soccer playing German boyfriend. Fluent in five languages and conversant in several others, she spends her days hanging out with her Muslim immigrant friends, studying languages, applying for translator jobs and bickering with her boyfriend Elias. Later, she finds herself in Israel “working” (most workdays she’s idle and only occasionally escorts a German air worker to a Palestinian village or refugee camp) as a translator for a German nongovernmental organization. While in Israel she witnesses the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand, trying to understand it from her own particular outsider’s perspective. Masha also embarks on her own, almost accidental romantic adventures.
Some readers and reviewers even though they liked All Russians Love Birch Trees unfortunately thought it was a bit disjointed. Thankfully for me that wasn’t a problem. I also found her writing fresh and direct. (Kudos therefore to Eva Bacon, the novel’s translator for doing a fine job.) Needless to say I was impressed by Grjasnowa’s debut novel. Don’t be surprised if it makes my year-end list of Best Translated Fiction.