Books: Lost in translation
Liz Jensen appreciates the hard graft of imported blooms as they bed down for a new life in alien soil
Saturday 20 March 1999
by Elena Lappin
Picador, pounds 12.99, 250pp
ALL EMIGReS have the same basic story to tell," writes the Russian- born storyteller Elena Lappin in her immensely likeable first collection. And her female protagonists - the uprooted and transplanted, the re-potted and the badly greenhoused - proceed to do just that, recounting their own versions of arrival and adjustment in the unexotic climates they now call home. These are invisible imports who arrive at airports and either wilt or flourish, according to the quality of after-care from their husbands. Engaging, and breezily frank, Lappin charts the adaptation to their new soil with mordant gusto.
Israel, Britain, and the US - all adopted home turf in some way to Lappin - feature as the backdrops of these economic refugees, exiles from eastern Europe. They are stories which see emigration as "a suicide of sorts"; but a comic suicide. In "Black Train", a Czech family, shamed into departure by an embarrassing incident rather than political upheaval, is faced with the slow realisation that Canada is not a "playground" but "a real country we were supposed to call home, and couldn't." Anyone who has ever lived as a stranger in a strange land will identify with the jaunty despair of these protagonists.
Lappin uses a lithe and frolicsome language, full of entertainment and her own brand of jaded joie de vivre. It takes nerve to entitle a short story "Bad Writing" - but such acts of cheek are part of the delight. While a woman struggles to remove her wedding ring on the New York subway, to hand to her mugger, she reflects that she only came to be wearing it in the first place because "at twenty-two I was sun-tanned, invincibly stupid, and determined to marry my dying best friend's middle-aged husband". Screwing the husband silly and stepping into her dead friend's shoes, she develops a coke habit, and tries to write in English. "Beautifully truncated" is the verdict of her creative writing teacher. "Just very, very bad," is her own.
These rueful tales return to the hopes and dreams lost in transit, or in translation, leaving only the wounds of grafting. In "Yoga Holiday" a Frenchwoman re-encounters the "monster" for whom she worked as an au pair 25 years before. She finally learns the cause of her employer's monstrosity; a miserable marriage to a man about to abandon her for his mistress. Now, a small, long-delayed epiphany of understanding can take place.
Perhaps it's the most the foreigner can hope for: to grasp the meaning of an action or phrase that has long puzzled. It's often said that to be a writer is to be an outsider, one whose nose is forever pressed against the pane. If that is true, then to be a foreign writer is to be doubly exiled. Or, in Elena Lappin's case, doubly blessed.
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