A snapshot of Russian emigrés in New York: Reviewing “The Funeral Party” by Ludmila Ulitskaya4 min read
“All the people sitting here who had been born in Russia differed in their gifts, their education and human qualities, but they were united by the single act of leaving it.”
In the terrible, soupy heat of summer, friends, neighbours, and ex-lovers gather in a small New York apartment to visit Alik, a Russian immigrant and artist now on his deathbed. There is Nina, Alik’s alcoholic wife, who is convinced that if Alik is baptised, he will be saved; Irina, a former circus acrobat turned lawyer, who discreetly pays Alik’s bills; Fima, a doctor in the Soviet Union, now forced to work in the US as a lab assistant due to his lack of English; and Maika, Irina’s 15-year-old daughter and Alik’s confidant; among others. Throughout Ulitskaya’s novella, each gets the chance to tell their story of how they ended up here in New York, each with their own thread connecting them back to their Russian homeland and to Alik.
The Funeral Party, originally published in 1998 as Веселые похороны, was Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s first full-length novel to be translated into English. Translated by Cathy Porter, it is a frank discussion of Russian emigrant life. Ulitskaya does not pull punches on her characterisations — when one character meets a black saxophonist, Ulitskaya writes that “Like most Russian emigrés, she was a racist, yet the man before her was one undoubtedly American product she hadn’t yet tried.” Yet, throughout the novel shine moments of humanity, moments that are recognisable and relatable to any immigrants building a new home in a new country.
One topic Ulitskaya returns to throughout the novel is the contrast between the sense of invincibility found in American society and that of the impassive fatalism felt by the Russians. The US is seen as a nation which rejects suffering, developing whole schools — philosophical, psychological, and medical — dedicated to saving people from misery. In comparison, as Fima explains, “the land which had raised him loved and valued suffering, and derived its nourishment from it: from pain people grew, developed, became wise.” Each of the characters in Ulitskaya’s novel is trapped by their own pain and faces navigating the American way of life with differing degrees of difficulty.
Another subject is religion, with Alik seeing both a rabbi and a priest on his deathbed. Ulitskaya herself identifies “culturally and ethnically as a Jew, and religiously as a Christian,” and many of her works touch upon these themes. In The Funeral Party, Reb Menashe tells Alik about the concept of the “captive child,” whereby in ancient times, if a Jewish child fell into captivity and was deprived of his religion and cultural upbringing, he was not guilty of this misfortune, nor could he expect to understand it as such. But it was the responsibility of the Jewish world to take care of these orphans. As Reb Menashe explains, today, there are more captive children than actual Jews, seeing the processes taking place during the Holocaust and within the Soviet Union as equivalent to the captivity of old.
In taking from her life experience in a more direct manner, the prototype for Alik was Ulitskaya’s first husband, Yuri Zakharovich Taits, who died in 1979. “My first husband, who has been dead for forty years, also passed away very early, and people still gather and remember what a bright and cheerful person he was,” Ulitskaya said during a talk in Perm. “I encountered such a departure of relatives and friends more than once until I accepted the challenge of life to describe all this.”
The climax of the novel comes when both Alik and the Soviet Union give their last breaths. As a focal point, Ulitskaya has everyone gather around the TV to view the 1991 Soviet coup d‘’état attempt, showing the varied reactions of those in New York. The remaining second half of the book follows the various characters as they make peace with Alik’s death and find a new path for their lives without him.
Ulitskaya’s acerbic character portrayals and the lack of a strong plot may not be for everyone, but at only a little over 150 pages, The Funeral Party succeeds as a brief contemplation of the Russian immigrant experience in the US. This is perhaps even more pertinent following the exodus of Russians from their homeland after its invasion of Ukraine, Ulitskaya being no exception.
Book details: Ulitskaya, Ludmila, The Funeral Party, translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter, 2002, Penguin Random House. Buy it here.