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Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Book Reviews

A Russian Medea

Medea and Her Children by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Translated by Arch Tait. Schocken Books, New York, 312 pages, 2002, $24.

Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel is an ambitious attempt to rehabilitate the name, “Medea,” taking it from the childkiller dramatized by Euripides and giving it to a nurturing maternal character. Medea Sinoply, born in 1900, is one of the last full-blooded, Pontic-speaking Greeks living in the Crimea in 1976, when much of the book takes place. The widow of a Russian Jew, Medea actually has no children, but she does raise three younger siblings when their parents die in 1916. Unlike the Medea of myth, Ulitskaya’s character stays in her native place, and every summer some of her “children” — nephews, nieces, and their kids — visit her unnamed village by the Black Sea.

Ulitskaya was born far from the Crimea (in Siberia in 1942), trained as a geneticist, and began writing fiction in the 1990s. Several of her novels, including Medea and Her Children, have been shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize, and The Kukotsky Case won last year. Two books, The Funeral Party and Sonechka and Other Stories, have preceded Medea and Her Children into English.

Ulitskaya’s Medea is the old woman in black, roving the hills collecting herbs, tending the family cemetery, saying her prayers, bustling in her kitchen, dispensing quiet wisdom, exhibiting stoic grace. Observing “a law long since repealed everywhere by everyone else” (p. 195), Medea is a familiar figure in fiction and, perhaps, in memory, the personification of Greek persistence. But this Pontic Medea is both at “home” and part of the Hellenic diaspora, and this split gives her life an interest it might not have if she lived in the Peloponnese. With no family close to her village, Medea must keep alive her language and customs by herself — until the relatives visit. They come not from western Europe or America or Australia but from Lithuania and Georgia, Tashkent and Moscow. In the Soviet Union, it seems, Greek culture and religion were assimilated more quickly than in other countries. So even Medea’s family is not much help preserving the old village ways.

Loyalty to the spouse is one of those traditions that the visitors ignore. Despite the waywardness of Medea’s husband, she remains dedicated to him and honors his memory. Her nieces and nephew come to the village to get away from spouses and to begin affairs. The geologist Georgii leaves his wife and daughter to interest his teenage son, Artyom, in the Crimea. More attracted to the “Greek” landscape (steep mountains, blue sea) than to Medea’s values, Georgii ends up divorcing his wife, marrying Medea’s non-Greek neighbor, building a new house, and residing in the village.

The lives of two other visitors turn out less happily. The tenuously married, thirtysomething Nike and her younger, more happily married cousin Masha come from Moscow with children but without husbands. Nike has forgettable vacation sex with Valerii Butonov, a neighbor’s houseguest. But Masha becomes obsessively infatuated with Butonov, a former circus performer. She offers herself to him and continues the affair in Moscow, as does Nike, perhaps out of competition with her cousin. A poet and romantic, Masha comes to an Emma Bovary end, and Nike is anguished with guilt for her part in the triangle.

Neither Medea nor Ulitskaya judges character, and yet the sexual liberation to which the younger generation aspires is both a falling away from Medea’s dignity and a commentary on the limited kind of freedom possible in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Although Medea is resolutely apolitical, Ulitskaya carefully places in her background the political restraints within which the characters press their freedom — the state’s control of housing, farming, health care, professions, religion, and movement outside the country.

Even more omniscient than the state is the author, who knows everything about her characters, their families, their thoughts. Ulitskaya uses the summer of 1976 to focus her narrative, but she ranges far in both time and space, delving into the lives, and relatives, of minor characters. With third-person certitude, she tells us their distant past and near future. Then in the last chapter, the point of view changes to first-person. The narrator says, “my husband is a Sinoply,” though from another branch of Medea’s family. She also says, “I am so glad that through my husband I became a member of this family, and that my children have a little Greek blood, Medea’s blood, in them” (p. 311).

I don’t know if this narrator speaks literally for Ulitskaya, but the shift of voice strengthens a suspicion I felt throughout Medea and Her Children: that the author, like the first-person narrator who only occasionally visited the village, has but superficial knowledge of Medea and the transmission of Greek culture. Throughout the novel, Ulitskaya notes how some of Medea’s relatives have her mother’s red hair or the Sinoply family’s stunted little finger or Medea’s night vision. These characteristics are, Ulitskaya the geneticist knows, real inheritances. But the first-person narrator’s reference to “Greek blood” is a false inheritance, a long-discredited index of ethnic continuity.

To generalize about the behavior of Medea and her family, Ulitskaya uses an outsider, the neighbor (named Nora) who eventually marries Georgii. Nora admires the passionate way Medea and her guests greet each other, the nieces’ loving treatment of their children, and Nike’s cooking prowess. This presentation of “Greekness” probably does no harm, and yet Medea and her family seem exploited by Ulitskaya: beleaguered Greeks give her anti-Soviet novel a convenient symbolic resonance. Medea lives in a house from which Tatars were evicted in an early twentieth-century ethnic purge. At novel’s end, a Tatar returns to claim the house. Since Medea is mostly a compendium of cultural clichés, she could as easily have been a Tatar to serve Ulitskaya as an ethnic and religious Other in the Russian-dominated and secular Soviet state. But of course the Muslim Tatars don’t have quite the same resonance that the inventors of democracy do.

Lacking cultural perspicuity, Medea and Her Children has little else to offer. A genealogical chart lists Medea’s 12 siblings, their 11 children, and numerous grandchildren. Many of these characters, as well as non-family members, have roles in the novel, yet it is only a little over 300 pages long. While one might not want a Sinoply War and Peace, Ulitskaya needed to take more time and space to develop the characters she introduces. Medea is, admittedly and oddly so, a “stereotypical figure” (p. 3). At age 76 and set in her ways, she has earned her status as a static place-marker. But the people who wheel around her are also more “figures” than characters, despite their relative youth and impulsive actions.

Ulitskaya’s digressive narration further reduces the kind of emotional attachment that usually binds readers to the family-chronicle novel. About half way through Medea and Her Children, a family secret long known by Medea is revealed to readers, but it creates little suspense. Not even the outcome of the Nike-Masha-Butonov triangle elicits much curiosity — because Ulitskaya keeps interrupting the relationship with journeys into the characters’ pasts, other characters’ trips to and from the Crimea, and the byways of those other characters’ lives. Ulitskaya’s wandering structure may be designed to imitate oral history or the art novel, but Medea and Her Children just doesn’t have the colloquial authenticity of the former or the artistic elegance of a book (or movie) such as The Hours.

Masha’s husband, a geneticist like Ulitskaya, emigrates to the United States and becomes a well-known researcher. Ulitskaya lives part of the time in New York City. These facts make me wonder for whom Medea and Her Children was written. Certainly for Russians, who may well be as curious about ethnics on their southern rim as Americans are about Latinos. Possibly for Americans, for whom a Greek-speaker in the Crimea would be doubly exotic. But Medea and Her Children is not, I think, for Greeks or for those with some intimate knowledge of Greek culture. The book’s cover is the giveaway — in retrospect. A woman dressed in bright white stands on a rock against ocean blue, iconic Greek colors. But the photograph is either uninformed or false: the woman is younger than Medea, is not wearing her widow’s black, and has her wedding ring on the wrong hand. But at least in Ulitskaya’s new re-Medeation, the name is not associated with witchery, adultery, and the killing of children.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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