Mini Review #2 Panic in a Suitcase

Magazine: N +1 Issue #14 Summer 2012
Title: Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

“Pasha hated to fly but more than that he hated interruptions. Packing, relocating, resisting the pull of his daily rituals, all this amounted to a profound psychological stress.”

      The story opens on the shores of Brighton Beach, known to locals as “Little Odessa” because of the large number of immigrants living there that come from the city of Odessa in the Ukraine. Pasha Nasmertov has travelled from the real Odessa to the United States where the rest of his family now lives. His mother has cancer and he has planned his trip to coincide with her operation, only to find that she has pushed back the date until after his trip. To his mother and the rest of his family, the real reason he is there is to tell them his decision as to whether or not he will finally immigrate to the United States. Pasha has just released a collection of poetry and his father has been secretly meeting with a professor from Harvard in hopes of securing Pasha the translation of his book of poetry and a lecture position. When Pasha goes for a walk, his father searches his briefcase and finds the letter that the Harvard professor John Lamborg had sent to Pasha weeks ago. Panicked that Pasha will never respond to the letter he copies the address and begins writing to Lamborg in Pasha’s name.
      But all this solicitousness and concern seems to be happening amongst a relentless inertia. Pasha’s father is a retired doctor and he is disgusted at himself for sleeping in although he admits it doesn’t really matter. The heat in their apartment is oppressive, and yet they don’t think to turn on the air conditioner. Pasha returns home one day to find them scattered throughout the house having dozed off mid-action. Flora’s daughter Frida is almost feral. She wonders around, hair knotted and dirty until a bug appears and they chop all of her hair off. In the opening scene at the beach Flora is horrified that some children are playing with a jellyfish, but instead of getting up to stop Frida when she reaches for the jellyfish, she turns away.
      We learn that Pasha is weak when Flora alludes vaguely to a diagnosis of bad lungs and “motor difficulties”, but it is his mind that seems worn out and apathetic. When he finally decides to immigrate, he is for once alert, and yet, while reflecting on his decision to immigrate to the United States, the only reasons he can up with are the presence of his friends, for whom we see him feeling disgust and then reluctant appreciation, and the deterioration of his home town of Odessa. He feels only indifference toward the man from Harvard who is so eager to give him a comfortable job where he can focus on his writing.
      The actions that are the most forceful and deliberate are those of Pasha’s mother Esther near the end of her life, when it is obvious to everyone but herself that there is no hope of recovery. She demands more chemo, stronger radiation, and new types of treatment—and she is convinced that there are additional treatments that the doctors are keeping from her.
      The dialogue and actions of the family are woven together into an almost stream of consciousness narrative, as though the heat has melted them together. The physical descriptions are strong— sharp and often unpleasant. On the beach the discarded cherry pits’ “clotted bloodiness…carried the ugly secret of mouths.” In their apartment without air-conditioning “they ate heat, they drank heat, mouths made sounds without trying to.” When Pasha spends time with the émigré poets he is at first uncomfortable, but then he relaxes:

“It was as if he’d been collecting evidence against them into a plastic bag that was punctured by one of the ubiquitous glass shards when he settled onto the sand. All the evidence leaked out into the ocean.”

      In the well known first sentence of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Yelena Akhtiorskaya has given us a glimpse of the Nasmertov family, in all of their unhappiness, but more importantly she has shown their specific worries and doubts, the way they care for each other, their panic, and ultimately, the vitality almost hidden within the torpor.

This entry was posted in Mini-Review.
Bookmark the permalink.
Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *