Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Farewell, Mama Odessa by Emil Draitser

Farewell, Mama Odessa by Emil Draitser
Published in America by Northwestern University Press today, the 15th January 2020.

F for my 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set in the summer of 1979 at the height of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, Farewell, Mama Odessa is an autobiographical novel whose intertwined storylines follow a variety of people — dissidents, victims of ethnic discrimination, and black marketeers among them — as they bid farewell to their beloved hometown of Odessa, Ukraine, and make their way to the West. At the book’s center is Boris, a young writer thwarted by state censorship and antisemitism. With an Angora kitten for his companion and together with other émigrés, he puts the old country in his rear-view mirror and sets out on a journey that will take him to Bratislava, Vienna, Rome, and New York on his way to Los Angeles.

Will Boris be able to rekindle his creative passion and inspiration in the West? Will other Jewish émigrés fit into the new society, so much different than the one they left behind? With humor and compassion, Farewell, Mama Odessa describes the émigrés’ attempts at adjustment to the free world. 

Emil Draitser himself emigrated from Odessa at the same time this novel is set so there is a strong sense of authenticity to the work. In the introduction he explains that his own experiences feature in two of the characters' stories, those of Boris and of Boris' older cousin, Ilya. It wasn't pleasant to be a Jew in the 1960s and 1970s Soviet Union, even less so in the aftermath of the Six Days War with Israel. However, for the Soviet Union, allowing that anyone could actually want to leave belied their myth of the perfect society. As a result of international pressure, a dissonant compromise was created which allowed Jews to receive invitations to join estranged family members in Israel. However, the familial relationships didn't have to be genuine and one's emigration application was likely to be unsuccessful - leading to even worse treatment with no chance of escape - but for thousands of Jews, the gamble was worth the risk.

Draitser's novel takes us all along the escape route from portraying some of the reasons by which Jews took the decision to leave, to arranging the right invitations and exit papers, to the long train journey itself. Everything is told with a wonderfully deprecating humour which often belies the seriousness of what took place. I was amazed at the extent to which people would go - can't get your own Israeli invitation? Marry a woman who already has one!

Once across the Soviet border, of course, it was no longer necessary for everyone to continue to Israel itself and several towns and cities en route - Vienna and Rome particularly - found themselves hosting thousands of refugees whose applications to America, Canada, the UK, Australia couldn't be processed fast enough to clear the bottlenecks. Draitser poignantly describes the uneasy situation of Russian families and their Italian hosts living side by side for months on end yet in a kind of poverty-stricken stasis until visas arrived. Farewell, Mama Odessa is a powerful account of the bravery of these emigrants, launching themselves into the unknown with the knowledge that they would never be able to return to their homes.

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  1. Ah, by having that personal close connection I can definitely see how this one would be very authentic and make the emotions involved in the journey all the more real. I am going to have to look into this one for myself as well!

    1. I think you would appreciate Draitser's writing. It does feel very real and I connected well with his humour too