The Cosmopolitans by Nadia Kalman

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Cosmopolitans

By Nadia Kalman
Livingston Press

Nadia Kalman’s fiction is a new addition to the trend of postcommunist Soviet Jewish immigrants writing about the immigrant experience. The Cosmopolitans, her debut novel, weaves short stories and flash fiction to create a comprehensive narrative centering on the Molochnik family, who are Ukrainian Jewish émigrés living in Stamford, Connecticut. Kalman titles each “chapter” (each being at most a few pages long) with the name of a character, beginning with “Lev” (the brother) followed by “Milla” (a daughter), then “Osip” (the father), then “Milla” again. This cycling of perspectives allows the reader to learn about the characters with surprising intimacy—certain details become much clearer when there is only one person in the proverbial room. Kalman intersperses the main characters with close associates of the family like the daughters’ husbands, a mother-in-law, and the father’s brother, but besides these occasionally distant voices, she sticks closely to the world of the Molochniks, rarely straying from their immediate surroundings.

Kalman establishes mimesis by using the Russian language extensively. The words are broken down phonetically and then usually translated. This brings an air of authenticity to the characters, but at times Kalman leaves it to the reader to decipher meanings. At other times the Russian seems forced; for instance, when a character is already speaking in Russian (which Kalman indicates with italics), sometimes his or her words will shift to Russian rendered phonetically, just to remind the reader that the italics are a translation. This can be distracting.

Overall, the tension between English and Russian works beautifully, representing the tension between the immigrant generation of the family and the generation that grew up in Connecticut. Kalman’s straightforward storytelling, juxtaposed to the lyricism with which she translates the characters’ Russian, sets up a reliable equation of miscommunication between the first and second generation of Molochniks. The mother and father, who primarily speak Russian with the sort of poetic meanderings found in classic Russian literature, are misunderstood and ignored by their daughters, who speak a straight-to-the-point English that mimics American television programming.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the narrative is its treatment of emigration. Kalman has tremendous insight into the particulars of Soviet Jewish immigrant families. This is not to say that she stereotypes or generalizes, but rather she uncovers the fine print of what daily existence is like for Russian immigrants. She warns the reader at the very beginning, through the character Lev, that when she writes she only writes about what she knows, what she is familiar with:

They are none of them fans of tradition. Tradition is for great-grandparents. . . . Was it traditional to leave Mother Russia, to leave it truly, not just to sit on the floor listening to an imitation folk bard sing about it? They flew to the land of the free, and they worked towards diplomas in computing, and after a few years, they could afford boom boxes to play the old wistful songs, they could afford to be tearful when they listened. They would categorically disagree with all of the above. They would tell me I am generalizing like a Marx. . . . Then, bowing my head, I admit that when I say all [Russians], I mean most, and when I say most, I mean my brother Osip’s family, the Molochniks . . .

The Molochniks disagree and second-guess themselves and each other in Kalman’s portrait of a family to which readers can relate despite its unusual qualities and experiences.

The author’s heartfelt insight leads us to genuinely commiserate with Stalina and Osip, the parents, when their middle daughter Yana chooses to marry Pratik, an exchange student they are hosting from Bangladesh. Their response is initially racist; they are against the wedding, against this mixing of cultures and religions. They like this man but are not ready at first to accept the unknown for their daughter. Kalman’s exploration of these intricacies is astoundingly poignant. The reader can see all sides of the story, is scared with the parents, rebellious with Yana, nervous about what Pratik is getting himself into. This sensitivity is refreshing, because even though many immigrants have much in common, each family’s story is unique.