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Too Much Benevolence
If you are looking for books that stand out as kind in our wicked age, Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novel about the lives of Russian emigres in New York is the perfect read. As a writer, Ulitskaya is all-inclusive in her benevolence. Not a single character in her book is bad, and if one has a defect, there is always an explanation and a generous helping of positive traits as a counterweight.
Alik, an emigre Soviet artist with a Jewish background, is dying in his New York apartment, surrounded by loving women and faithful friends, who even invite a band of street musicians from Paraguay to make Alik’s passing to the other world not too sad an affair. Alik’s former wife invites a rabbi, while his current wife calls in an Orthodox priest. They are both good men and each finds many arguments in support of his faith. Meanwhile, the August 1991 coup takes place in Moscow, and Alik passes away happy, knowing that “we have won.” This “we” is supposed to unite Russians living in Russia, emigre Russians, Orthodox Christians, Jews and all sorts of other positive characters, who join in something like an ecumenical carnival near Alik’s deathbed. There are no hard feelings towards anyone. “America rejects suffering ontologically,” remarks Ulitskaya.
It is probably because of her benevolence to her fictitious characters that Ulitskaya wins all sorts of prizes and receives positive reviews from the liberal press in Russia. Her antipode Eduard Limonov, who filled his “The Book of the Dead” with insulting, but concise observations about some “real” dead people, gets nothing of the sort. Surprisingly, Limonov is the more popular of the two.
Published by Schoken Books, New York, 154 pp.
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