Daily Archives: February 14, 2012

‘Otherland’ by Maria Tumarkin

2010, 301 p & notes

“What IS this book?” I wondered half-way through. Travelogue; a reflection on literature and historical methodology;  a history of nations and a history of family; a reflection on the mother/daughter relationship- how would all that be summed up in the one-word descriptor that you often find on the back cover of a book?

“Memoir” .  It seems a little incongruous to me that anyone born in 1974 could write a memoir yet, but if a memoir is a literary construct through which the writer represents a lived experience, then yes, this is a memoir- but I’d qualify it by adding “and much more”.

The author is a Melbourne-based historian, who emigrated from the Ukraine with her parents and sister in 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall,  at the age of fifteen.  She had returned to Russia  previously, but had not made it to the Ukraine.  On this trip she takes her twelve- year old daughter, Billie, largely because she feels that it is the last chance she will have to do so:

Right now is my last chance to go back with her and still be the centrifugal force of our journey, exercising the course-setting and veto powers.  It is, in other words, my last chance to have Billie follow me around, however begrudgingly, as her mother’s tail.  In a year, maybe a few months, the tail will drop off, or the tail will be wagging the dog, and such a trip, if even possible, will be a different proposition altogether. (p. 28)

It is the journey that ties this memoir together, but it is a layered journey. Mother and daughter are travelling, but Tumarkin is making her own journey back to the relationships that were ruptured when she and her family left so abruptly, and she is making a journey into her own parents’ and grandparents’ experiences as well.  But it is not her story alone: she interweaves the journey with the stories and observations of writers, historians, poets and political dissidents.  In this way, it is an intellectualized endeavour- indeed, I had not heard of many of the writers she cited- but it is also highly personalized.

It is much more than the story of a mother and daughter, and yet this is important too. We read excerpts from Billie’s diary- am I the only one who felt slightly grubbied and complicit in this?  The mother/daughter relationship generally is often fraught, and here I found myself judging the author rather harshly for her own intrusion into her daughter’s perceptions of her experience, where she so much wanted her daughter to see and feel certain things. Ah, but in terms of judgement and criticism Tumarkin was often there before me, aware of her own shortcomings.  There is a stringent honesty in her writing, as when she describes her daughter opening up the piano to play in the apartment of an elderly woman herself the cultured, brilliant daughter of a revered dissident:

In this apartment at the very heart of Moscow, metres away from the Mossovet and Statira Theatres and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall,  Billie sits down at the old piano.  She plays what she usually plays- Tori Amos and Coldplay.  How alien they sound inside these walls.  Not in Adorno’s ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ kind of way, no.  And not in a vulgar popular-culture way.  It is just that here these songs, which evoke places and times that make no sense in the world of this apartment, sound thin, flat and inconsequential in the extreme, like a mobile ringtone underneath a cathedral dome. Momentarily I feel ashamed. Ashamed for both of us. (p. 76)

There are several mothers and daughters here.  It is also a history of a Jewish family, who were part of a much bigger history, and here I found myself hampered by my lack of late twentieth-century history: who came first again? Gorbachev? Yeltsin?  I craved a factual chronology, to juxtapose against this very personalized history.

This is a very carefully constructed memoir.  It opens with a cliff-hanger that is not resolved until after half-way through the book.  The writing is reflective and scholarly in places, and confessional and all too human in other places.  Like all journey narratives, it moves forward and there is a homecoming, in more than one sense.  It is quite a journey.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I read it as my third book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge