It is still 1979. I am still twenty-nine. While waiting for an exit visa, my family is starving. Even semi-Americans have to eat, and future prosperity won’t feed us now. That’s one of the negative things about socialism: humans are slaves to their stomachs. I’m sure things are different in America because there slavery has long been abandoned.
–from “Hunger” in “My Life at First Try” by Mark Budman
To the rest of the world there is something perpetually inexplicable about Russia and the Russia people. Sir Winston Churchill called Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He was referring to the foreign policy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but it might as well have been about the Soviet soul (if there was such a thing as a “Soviet soul” – but there we go getting political when we should be humanistic). Over the years the Russians themselves have given the best account of their daily experience and inner strivings, especially in the works of such trenchant satirists as Nicolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov.
Mark Budman writes in that tradition with irony and longing in his semi-autobiographical novel “My Life at First Try”. Budman was born in Russia to a Jewish family and emigrated to the United States when he was about thirty. So he has now lived in Russia and America in almost equal parts. “My Life at First Try” is a novel-in-stories, a life’s adventure rolling forward in forty-eight short and independent chapters, half set in the USSR and half in the USA.
The first few stories are a recollection of childhood, filled with the fun, conflict and absurdity of that stage of life. His protagonist, called Alex, pretends to be a knight, goes tiger hunting (a kitten plays the role of a tiger) and at the age of twelve forms a political party (“We will keep it so secret that no one in the world but us will know about it)”. By adolescence Alex is facing military service, studying for an engineering degree and has a big break as an extra in a movie. His relatives who have gone to America make it seem as if life is better there, and a glimpse of American tourists laughing when they were not drunk convinces Alex that they come from a happier land.
But when he arrives on this side his life in America does not immediately open the Golden Door. Alex and his wife settle somewhere in upstate New York. She is a physician (as is Budman’s wife), he finds a job as an engineer for a company he calls HAL (slide each of those letters up one space in the alphabet). They are no longer truly Russian but they’re not yet fully American. In the story “The Voting Machine”, the new citizen is confronted by “a choice: an ass or an elephant. I prefer cats to the rest of the animal kingdom, but the cat is not on the ballot, and I’m not sure that I can write her in.” Reflecting a common immigrant experience his young daughters adapt quickly to their new culture. Meanwhile, Alex has designs on becoming a writer, and in a story called “Writer” he writes,
“Writing in a second language is supposed to be a torture. But I enjoy it. Maybe I’m a masochist. Maybe I need to see a shrink. It could be fun. She would put me on a couch and ask if my mother liked to communicate with me in writing.”
In real life, Mark Budman has mastered the complexities of English and is the publisher of the Vestal Review, a semi-annual devoted to flash fiction, carefully-structured short-short stories that many would consider prose poems. Budman says that it could be the hardest type of fiction to write. His poetry and prose also have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, McSweeny’s and the anthology Flash Fiction Forward.
Mark Budman joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to uncover the semi- sides of his -autobiographical work, tell about life on both sides of the Iron Curtain, read from his new novel and answer listeners’ questions.