Glorious People by Sasha Salzmann, review: An in-depth study of friendship and family relations across two generations

Amanda Hopkinson is impressed by a novel about dislocation across the generations


This is a novel with a lot of history and a lot of characters: an in-depth study of friendship and family relations across two generations. Set before and beyond the collapse of a venal and dictatorial Soviet Union, it addresses the impossibility of determining what happens in life, and of the choices we make in surmounting or accepting what comes. From the repressions of the former Soviet Union to the exuberance of Berlin in the 1990s, the same question persists in new forms: shall I go or shall I stay?

Central to its complex historical storyline are two women, both Ukrainian Russian-speakers, determined to head for the west. Eventually settling in Germany, there they share their homesickness, while their two daughters inherit a sense of dislocation. Men – who do not generally come out well in this book – are instrumental in providing an escape route, but also in adding considerably to life’s complications by their fecklessness.

Lena, who wanted to be a neurologist, ends up working in a Donbas STD clinic where she makes the mistake of having an affair with a Chechen patient. Pregnant and on the rebound, she is wooed by Paul, a Jewish engineer. Together with baby Edita, they use his German work permit to depart for a new life in Jena.

There Lena meets Tatjana, a hairdresser, who came to Jena as a Ukrainian bride, invited by a German who omitted to mention he already had a wife. Their daughter, Nina, apparently affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, becomes estranged from Tatjana, but connects with Edita. As Nina increasingly withdraws into her inner world, Edi takes off, entering journalism; coming out as non-binary; opting for Berlin.

In making such life choices Edi appears to resemble the book’s author. Except that Salzmann, who was born in Volvograd in 1985, also went on to found the seminal arts magazine, Freitext; engaged onstage with Sam Beckett and Vladimir Putin; established the New Institute of Writing for the Stage and the Conflict Zone Arts Collective; and trained as a boxer. Small wonder that Glorious People could as well translate into a play as a book, or that the title owes a debt to Chekhov. The full quote – as in the original German title – is perhaps the most famous line spoken by Dr. Astrov in Vanya, and translates as: “Everything about a person must be glorious.”

At a time when Russia is increasingly reverting to its pre-Perestroika days and, as the events of this past week have demonstrated more clearly than ever, flaunting its capacity to behave egregiously, when the world is in flames, and war, economic destabilisation and mass migration are undermining global stability, Salzmann does not shirk from addressing fundamental issues in her exploration of their consequences. From Paul’s parents’ generation, who fled West to settle – however temporarily – with their traditions, recipes and witticisms, to its depiction of a more dislocated present day, this is truly a book of our times that will last for long, hopefully long after they too are history.

It’s vividly translated too by Imogen Taylor, also translator of Salzmann’s first novel, published here in 2017 as Beside Myself, and now available in 16 languages. Friendship and courage, imagination and hard work are what pull the large cast of the novel through as they reckon with politics and with each other. In a novel deliberately short on impressive male characters, at least Paul provides its closing chapters with a couple of echt Yiddish jokes (necessarily involving death and latkes) that are well worth the wait.

Translated by Imogen Taylor, Pushkin Press, £16.99

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