‘A Biography of a Chance Miracle’ by Tanja Maljartschuk (Review)

With the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize winner (and the end of my shadow judging duties), it’s time to dive back into the pile of physical and digital books that have piled up in recent weeks.  First up today, we’re off to Ukraine, where a writer introduces a young woman growing up in uncertain times.  It’s a story that could be depressing, but this one is mostly told in good humour, showing us life in a country that hasn’t quite worked independence out yet, at least not well enough to care for all of its people…

Tanja Maljartschuk’s A Biography of a Chance Miracle (translated by Zenia Tompkins, review copy courtesy of Cadmus Press) is a novel following the life of Lena, a girl living in a provincial Ukrainian town nicknamed San Francisco by its long-suffering locals.  The story takes us from her early years, including some turbulent times at school and a loss of faith in her teens, before showing us what has become of her as an adult, with Lena forced to confront the realities of a world that doesn’t match up to the dreams she had of it.

However, what should be a rather bleak tale of a wasted life in a dull backwater is actually a rather entertaining affair.  Lena isn’t a woman to dwell on the dark side of life, and she makes the most of the limited opportunities that come her way, at times creating them herself.  There’s another reason why hers is a life less ordinary, though, as strange things seem to happen when she’s around, whether it’s the mysterious case of her disappearing kindergarten teacher or the story of a mysterious angel who seems to be following her around.  Lena is certainly a resourceful woman, but even she won’t turn down help from above.

While A Biography of a Chance Miracle focuses very much on the young woman, the novel is really all about Ukraine in the post-Soviet era.  Maljartschuk sets her character against a backdrop of a country where in order to survive, the people need to become resourceful and independent as quickly as possible.  In such an environment, as Lena discovers, the notions of good and evil take on a slightly different meaning:

There were all kinds of people and all kinds of stories.  Lena did her best to file all of them away in her head for statistical purposes in order to some day, down the road, understand where evil came from. At the time, it all seemed to come from poverty. Someone who’s constantly thinking about money doesn’t have the time to work on himself in order to become better because it’s easy to be evil.  You don’t have to exert yourself to be evil. But being good, on the other hand, requires a little effort. You have to have a clear head, sleep a minimum of eight hours a day, eat healthy, work out, and take walks in the fresh air, preferably in some park.  Per Lena’s modest statistics, people in her immediate world didn’t do any of this.
pp.45/6 (Cadmus Press, 2018)

There are certainly a fair few scoundrels introduced over the course of the book, but Lena somehow comes through fairly intact, even if her morals aren’t always quite what we’d expect.

Initially, Lena is unbowed by the pressures of the corrupt society she lives in.  Despite falling in with a group of fascists at university, she goes her own way, befriending a Jamaican student who has somehow found his way to Ukraine (and striking back at them when they attempt to discipline her for her subversive ways).  Standing up to the evil of bureaucracy is a different matter, though, and when she discovers a childhood friend in need of help, even her boundless enthusiasm and energy will founder on the rock of governmental Catch-22s…

One of the strengths of A Biography of a Chance Miracle is its light touch, with what could have been a grey tale enlivened by humorous touches.  Maljartschuk takes us through the town and introduces us to its inhabitants, and we spend our time strolling through the bazaar where many of them make a living, chatting to the professor flogging second-hand goods on the side, or being introduced to the quack making money from diagnosing fake illnesses.  Even the fascist student movement has its comical side, showing its pettiness in its announcements:

It was then that the Resistance Movement issued an operational directive prohibiting ny relations whatsoever between foreigners and Ukrainian girls.  In reality, the directive pertained only to Ishion and Lena because Ishion was the only foreigner in town and Lena was the only one who talked to him at all. (p.103)

However, Maljartschuk manages to alter the mood successfully as Lena’s youthful optimism is gradually ground down.  While she may have got away with being a free spirit for a while, the state eventually catches up with her, and the reader sympathises with her frustrations, with even small victories followed by crushing defeats in her quest to obtain the benefits her friend is lawfully entitled to.

For the most part, A Biography of a Chance Miracle is an entertaining read, but it doesn’t always quite hit the mark.  While Tompkins’ translation reads well, the writing is probably a little simple for my preferences.  In addition, despite the late reappearance of one of the characters introduced in the first few chapters, the story can appear a tad too episodic at times, one story following another without too much connecting them.  It is a novel, but there are times when it’s more like a collection of short stories featuring the same characters, and for me the book was occasionally caught between the two structures.

Overall, though A Biography of a Chance Miracle is an interesting look at life in post-Soviet Ukraine, showing how one woman does her best in the face of a lack of work and opportunities.  Hard work and intelligence will only get you so far in a society dominated by vested interests, but as Lena discovers, if you work at it, things might just turn out well – particularly if you believe in miracles 🙂

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