Some books come into your life unexpectedly, without any warning, and only after you have engaged with them for a little while you realise they were exactly what you have been looking for, even though you never even knew they existed in the first place. One of those books is A Biography of a Chance Miracle, written by the Ukrainian author Tanja Maljartschuk, translated into English by Zenia Tompkins and published by Cadmus Press.
After spending quite a long time away from the blog, what better way to return than with a review of a beautiful and thought-provoking book such as this. A Biography of a Chance Miracle is a book that came into my life by utter and complete chance and I am so thankful that it did.
The story of this novel follows Lena, a young girl who is born and grows up in a Western Ukrainian city which she calls San Francisco. We follow Lena from her childhood years to her adolescence and early adulthood as she tries to figure out the world around her, a world she never seems to be able to fit into. A rebellious but sensitive soul, Lena refuses to conform to any kind of rule set upon her even as a child, and she always speaks up when she sees injustice and maltreatment, although that rarely ends up in her favour.
Vividly depicting the political and cultural climate of Ukraine at the time, the author brings issues of cultural dispute with Russia, the inability of the government to take care of its people and the vast, chaotic mess that is bureaucracy to the forefront. Although everyone in her country is taught to hate Russia, Lena seems to feel a peculiar affinity and likeness towards this country and its language, for which she is repeatedly punished. She also seems to be drawn to the ‘forlorn creatures’ as she calls them, those people who also don’t seem to fit in and are different from the norm, like her classmate and childhood friend who she nicknames Dog or her university roommate Vasylyna, a burly athlete with an unexpectedly soft side.
Lena’s aspiration in life is to not lead a stupid and meaningless life like most of the people around her do. In order to achieve that, she takes on the role of the saviour and tries to help the people that need her the most through a series of small ‘miracles’. From an activist fighting for stray dogs’ rights to fighting against bureacracy just to earn a wheelchair for her crippled friend, Lena is an advocate of justice that no one really seems to appreciate, as most of her endeavours end up in failure. Her spirit and determination always shine through, though, something which culminates in the rather ambiguous ending. The presence of magical realism makes the ending rather unclear and leaves the reader wondering if what is described is really what happened or if it’s all just part of Lena’s machinations, but I guess, such an ending would be the only fitting one for a character as whimsical as Lena.
I loved Maljartschuk’s prose and writing style because it is poignant yet subtle and humorous at the same time. She manages to satirise the state of Ukraine at that time by balancing reality and serious topics with wit, surrealism and the right dose of humour. It is precisely the kind of sociopolitical critique that I utterly enjoy reading. The translation also needs to be commended, since the prose flowed effortlessly and all the cultural references were presented in a friendly way to those who may not be familiar with the Ukrainian culture.
One of the main reasons why this novel came so close to my heart is because reading about the state of post-war Ukraine and the way bureaucracy and the system keep on failing their people sadly reminded me so much of the current situation in Greece. And that’s a sad, sad truth to realise.
To finish off, I would like to say a few words about Cadmus Press, a fairly new publishing house committed to bringing the most outstanding literature from Europe, focusing on Eastern and Southeastern European countries, in English translation. I think their undertaking is really impressive and I’m always in for some of the most notable lesser-known literary voices of Europe, especially if they are as impressive as A Biography of a Chance Miracle.
I strongly, strongly recommend you pick up this book. No matter what your reading preferences may be, this book will definitely tug at your heartstrings and play the sweetest melody in your soul. I enjoyed every single second I spent reading this book and I really hope more of the author’s books become available in English in the very near future, as I see her quickly climbing up the list of my favourite authors.
A copy of this wonderful book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.