Friday, December 01, 2006


When I think of Russia, Ukraine or other post-Soviet states struggling to recover from the dead hand of Communism, humour doesn’t come immediately to mind. Every step forward is followed by two back, and life just looks crushingly hard for so many people.

So the film Borat seems cruel, especially using a real country, Kazakhstan, as the source of some of the comedy. But Borat exists within the comic convention of the innocent abroad, the naïf who ends up exposing the hypocrisy and venality of the so-called civilized folks, the city people, the smart guys. Many people have pointed out that it is Americans who end up looking the most foolish.

Gary Shteyngart is an American writer, a Russian-Jewish-American writer to be specific. His two novels have a bit of Borat in them, with main characters both foolish and wise and usually funny. Both books poke fun at both the North American characters and the locals – Russians, and various thinly disguised Eastern Europeans.

Absurdistan is his second novel, a funny, crude but smart book about Misha Vainberg, the arrogant, fat son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. In a series of misadventures, Misha hurtles from St. Petersburg to college in the United States to a tiny country in the Caucasus called Absurdsvani. Recently the New York Times named it one of their “10 Best Books of 2006”.

I thought Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was one of the most enjoyable books I had read in awhile. We follow Vladimir Girshkin in a series of misadventures from New York to Miami to “Prava” in Eastern Europe.

Lovers of Borat’s pokes at post-Communist states should take a look at Molvanîa: A Jetlag Travel Guide by Santo Cilauro et al. This is a hilarious parody of stuffy travel guides like Fodor’s, which some have pointed to as a possible inspiration for Borat. Molvanîa is an entirely fictitious Eastern European country. But the guide is entirely realistic, detailing attractions such as the Museum of Medieval Dentistry or helpful phrases such as “"Kyunkasko sbazko byusba?" (“Where is the toilet paper?”)


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