Americans prefer to think of the story of immigration as one of promise, of hope, of a traveler from a far shore making a strange land into his or her home. And despite waves of prejudice against certain immigrants, there’s a great deal of truth to that narrative. But in Europe, where nationality has traditionally meant ethnicity, the immigration story is more likely to be one of exile. An Irishman or an Italian can become American, but a Croatian never quite becomes German, or a Moroccan, French. In Europe, immigration is sitting on a Berlin park bench and remembering Dubrovnik; it is turning on Radio France and hearing the president say there are too many of you here. Home is not what you find or make, it’s what you’ve lost. It’s the one place you will never be safe. You’re in Frankfurt or Paris or Barcelona not because you’re looking for the future but because you’re running from the past. You’re there not because of the opportunities it offers but because it’s the only place that will have you.
In her debut novel, All Russians Love Birch Trees, Azerbaijan-born German novelist Olga Grjasnowa explores this terrain of displacement and loss with an unsparing vividness. The novel’s protagonist, Maria Kogan—“Masha” to friends and family—is in her twenties and has lived in Germany since her mid-teens. She’s a German citizen and speaks the language fluently but doesn’t feel German. She and her parents are Russian Jews from Azerbaijan, refugees from the genocidal fighting of the mid-nineties. Masha’s refusal to talk about the violence that forced her family to emigrate is a recurring point of friction with her current boyfriend, Elias, who sees it as a failure of trust. She considers this selective silence an act of self-assertion, a refusal to be a victim: “I didn’t want a genocide to be the key to my personality.”
And yet she always carries the past with her. The memories keep returning: the days her family kept her grandmother’s corpse in their apartment because it wasn’t safe to go outside, the woman who plummeted to her death from a window, landing on the sidewalk by the six-year-old Masha and staining her shoes with blood.
Her first experience of Germany with her parents influences her choice, years later, to train as an interpreter:
I accompanied my parents to the immigration office and learned that language meant power. If you didn’t speak German you had no voice. And if you only spoke a little you went unheard. Applications were accepted and dismissed according to accent.
But she also learns while still in her teens that even language can only help you so much, that in the eyes of many Germans she will never be a German. In a classroom discussion of a murder case involving a German-born Turk, Masha thinks,
While I wouldn’t want to run into this Mehmet guy in a dark alley, I failed to grasp what made him different from German criminals. He’d been born in Germany, raised in Munich, and attended only German public schools. The only difference was he didn’t have German citizenship. My teacher made sure to tell us exactly what was wrong with him.
Masha copes with her sense of stateless limbo in part by choosing as friends and lovers people who share her sense of displacement: ethnic Turks and Arabs, often born in Germany but not really German, and not quite Turks or Arabs either.
Her friends and lovers are also burdened by past events they won’t let go of. Her best friend, Cem, has never stopped mourning his dead brother. Her ex-boyfriend, Sami, is still obsessed with the memory of a doomed, first love. And in some corner of his mind Elias is still a child alone in the house with his alcoholic, abusive father. These characters’ lives don’t have a past, present or future; just an endless, haunted now.
When an unexpected death blights Masha’s life just as she’s finishing her professional training, she decides to take a job in Israel with a German NGO. Predictably, she doesn’t escape the pain of her most recent loss simply by leaving the place where it happened. Instead she gets drawn into the lives of others who are emotionally marred by violence in a country where the past is never really past.
All Russians Love Birch Trees was lauded by critics when it first appeared in Germany, winning its author the Klaus Michael Kuhn prize for a debut novel and a place on the long list for the Deutscher Buchpreis (the German equivalent of the Man Booker). The novel was also adapted for stage and performed at the Maxim Gorky Theater in Berlin. Grjasnowa deserves this acclaim not only for her fearless exploration of one of the most fractious issues in contemporary Germany, but also for her stellar literary gifts. One of the few flaws I can find with this novel is the comparative underdevelopment of many other characters, particularly Masha’s friends. They are interesting enough that I want more of them, if only to better understand what they have in common with Masha besides a feeling of displacement.
All Russians Love Birch Trees is much more than a political tract. Masha is a beautifully compelling character, someone who has witnessed horrors, and faced difficulties that would have beaten down many other people, but who moves on with a relentless determination. Where and how she moves is sometimes misguided, but that’s beside the point. Masha’s voice is a genuine narrative triumph. Grjasnowa successfully takes you into the mind of someone whose daily life is filled with painful memories so vivid they merge seamlessly with the present. With a lesser writer the result would be confusion; with Grjasnowa it’s a painful indicator of just how troubled Masha is, of how it feels to live with an ever-present past.