Friday, 30 April 2010

Czech-mating in the New Republic

“Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia” is a novel by Michal Viewegh:- one of the most popular contemporary Czech writers - and apparently also the best-selling one...

This is a slim but dense novel, which mainly concerns the story of a middle-aged teacher who is employed by a local Mafioso (of whom there seem many in this region…) to teach his 20 year old daughter, Beata, creative writing. From the narrator's first visit to the gloomy bedroom of this uncommunicative individual, it is apparent that this is no ordinary task – he is actually expected to bring her out of her depression after the break-up with a former boyfriend, based upon the vague notion that she has previously expressed a wish to write.

All of this sets the book up to be a relatively light read: an impression reinforced by the book’s cover – which, with its bright-pink cover and cartoon image of a pair of lady’s legs - seems to be consciously positioning itself as a lightweight book. Similarly; the blurb on the back, with phrases such as “picaresque romp” lead to expectations of a description of the amiable adventures of a teacher approaching mid-life crisis who is thrown together with the young daughter of the local gangster who, though 20, exhibits the actions of a stroppy teenager. Indeed, given the age difference, certain echoes of Nabokov are distinctly evident here.

However, despite the basic plot, this book is intended by the author as nothing of the sort. His alternative intention is also flagged up on the back cover description which – as well as ascribing the novel with the dual role of being “a serious exploration of the writer in post-communist Europe", also signposts, almost in passing, Beata’s ultimate suicide.

This dichotomy pretty well sums up the book as a whole:– it uses the surface narrative of the aforementioned plot as a platform for the author to explore his thoughts on the nature of writing through a series of post-modern asides. These asides include the author interrupting the narrative – Vonnegut-like – to discuss his writing of this work, as well as the casual frequent references to Beata’s impending suicide which jar with the ongoing narrative of the development of her relationship with the narrator. More annoyingly, the author frequently breaks up the flow of the narrative by italicising certain words or phrases mid-sentence to no particular effect.

As such, in my opinion, this novel falls between two stools:

On one hand: the basic narrative of a middle aged teacher bringing a young pupil out of depression and into a relationship is simply not engaging. The main issue here is characterisation: Beata, on the one hand, is not a sympathetic character – she comes across as spoilt, self-absorbed and shallow – flitting from one new-age fad to another, just as she flits from one lover to another. An obvious metaphor for the transition of the Czech Republic from East to Western influence, but one which does not really work on the literal level. Also, whilst the narrator has an engaging enough voice, it is hard to find sympathy for him in his hypocrisy in starting a sexual relationship with the young Beata whilst eulogising over his wonderful wife and young daughter back home (his wife, incidentally, is obviously upset over her suspicions of the relationship, and he lies to her when confronted with the issue). As such – the ultimate suicide of Beata, who is never portrayed in more than two-dimensions by the author - and the impact upon the narrator, leave sadly little impact upon the reader.

One the other hand, Viewegh’s attempt at presenting this as metafiction – through his matter-of-fact signposting of the key plot point (Beata’s suicide) right from the outset, his interruptions of the novel by the novel’s author, his seemingly random use of italics and his rather heavy-handed use of post-modernist quotes – all fall rather flat. As does his lengthy insertion of a novel-within-a-novel towards the end of the book, which simply serves to break up the narrative even further with no real purpose that I, as the humble reader, could define.

I am aware that I have given this novel a bit of a mauling so far, and must accede that perhaps this is down to my previous academic background as a student of literary theory: I have seen all of these literary devices used before to much better effect; and felt rather frustrated that they seem to be being employed here rather for the sake of it, at the author’s indulgence, rather than for any valid literary purpose. Although, of course I accept that this is my personal opinion and – as with previous works – there may be important cultural points I am missing, or which have been lost in the translation into English (which, I should point out, is occasionally stilted).

But, of course, my ‘Round the World’ trip is not purely an exercise in literary criticism – it is about what I can find out about each country and its culture through literature. As such, this book certainly offers some nuggets into the lower-middle class lives of Prague residents - teachers in this instance - as well as its richer inhabitants, who earn their money in rather more dubious ways (i.e. Kral – Beata’s gangster father who, among other enterprises, owns the local brothel). Some of the most entertaining – and enlightening - passages in this work involve the often-hilarious exchanges that take place in the teachers' office at school, with wonderfully depicted characters such as:

a) Stribrny – an 18 year old student teacher terrorised by his students who are a mere four years younger than him;
b) Svetlana Trakarova, whose extreme reaction to liberation from the sexual Puritanism of communism leads to wildly inappropriate discourse of a gynaecological nature and actions such as furnishing her young pre-pubescent students with condoms, and
c) Chvatalova-Sukova – an exponent of classical concerts for students which her fellow teachers despair of – as is shown in a genuinely humorous account of a trip to a classical recital attended by a hoard of disinterested students (complete with Walkmen) and even more disinterested teachers…

Sadly these passages, which are a joy to read, and give a flavour of the everyday life of a teacher in contemporary Prague, are too frequently interspersed with the narrative devices as described above. As such this is a curate’s egg of a novel – good in parts, but ultimately disappointing. That said, Michal Viewegh (a born native of Prague) is one of the most popular contemporary Czech writers and the best-selling one. As such, I have no qualms about having included this novel as the representative work for my trip to the Czech Republic – a trip which has now come to an end.

From the Czech Republic, I move on to the neighbouring country of Austria. For this leg of my journey I have selected “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” by the Austrian novelist Wolf Haas.

The trip from the Czech Republic to Austria is slightly complicated by the fact that this Austrian novel is set in a fairly remote village in the Austrian Alps (Farmach). It is further complicated by the fact that deciphering bus and train timetables in the Czech Republic can seem baffling, and buying tickets can also be a hassle.

However, here we go: my starting point is “Station Praha-Smíchov” in Prague, an historic and functional-looking building from whence I get a train at the inhumane time of 5.11 in the morning! I stay on the train until Schwandorf at 8:53am from where I blearily make my way to the 9:08 München Hbf train:- leaving there at 11:27am and arriving at Salzburg Hbf station at 12:58.

At 13:10 I finally take a local train (“REx 1508”) and arrive in Saalfelden at 14:57. Saalfelden is mainly a summer resort, but winter-sports areas in the mountains are easy to reach, which means it has long been a holiday destination. From there, I get a mercifully uncommunicative taxi ride to the Alpine resort of Farmach, and on to Austria….

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Drying out in Poland with 'The Mighty Angel'

As mentioned in the last post: my first port of call in my visit to Poland is a pub called “The Mighty Angel”, which is also this novel’s title; an apt starting point for this poetic eulogy by the narrator (and, one suspects, the author himself) to the euphoria and tragedy of alcoholism.

Aside from the narrator (Jerzy – who shares the same name as the author), alcoholism has become a way of life for many of the characters in “The Mighty Angel”. Indeed, much of this novel takes place on an ‘alco ward’ in contemporary Warsaw, but the fact that they temporarily have to try and dry out doesn't make much of a difference: the shadow of their overwhelming dependency hangs over everything even there. Jerzy has already been sent there eighteen times, but obviously to little effect for his stays are little more than a pause in his alcohol-consumed life. Indeed, he obviously doesn't take any lessons he might have learned very far, as every time he is released he has the same routine: he heads straight for his local pub, 'The Mighty Angel', for four double-shots, then buy a bottle of vodka before returning home to clean up his trashed apartment in readiness for his next bender.

Jerzy has his routine down pat within the alco ward, too, occupying himself there - and earning decent money and benefits - by writing the various other patients' accounts for the 'emotional journals' they are required to keep, making him: "the secretary of their minds". In his use of writing, Jerzy demonstrates that alcohol is not the only thing that consumes him. As he admits: “I was ruled by my tongue. I was ruled by women. I was ruled by alcohol.“

Whilst two of these loves are undeniable - alcohol, obviously and also language/literature - “Language is my second - what am I saying, second - language is my first addiction”, I was less convinced by his assertion that women form a triumvirate of influence on his life. Certainly, in the main of this novel Jerzy only gives a cursory reference to his former relationships (which include two failed marriages), and the relationships described in the main part of the novel (a truly poignant episode with the possibly-redemptive Joanna – over whom he chooses alcohol – and a brief, slightly superfluous brush with the poet Alberta).

However, in the alco ward he at least gets to indulge his passion for words - although he is frustrated by the need to temper his own natural style (he is: "incapable under any circumstances of forgoing a well-turned phrase") in rendering believable versions of the other alcoholics' tales. Indeed, he comes to worry that: “the unending labour of reproducing the crude style of the alcos was having an impact on my own exquisite turn of phrase”.

As such, much of the novel consists of Jerzy's accounts of his fellow inmates, both in reproductions of some of the accounts he has penned as well as in his more general own descriptions. Either way, it's all presented through his prism, an agreeable style that is amusingly at odds with much of what is recounted. The narrator neither romanticises nor demonises these characters' (and his own) weakness: it's just who they all are. And if quite a few wind up in even sorrier states (including dead), so be it. At this stage, for most of them - and despite the best (or, more often, clueless) efforts by the hospital staff - it's hard to be much more than philosophical. The very matter-of-factness of this delivery is what gives this novel a truly tragic feel, and one which is often augmented by genuinely affecting prose – reflecting the dual concerns of Jerzy: alcohol addiction and the beauty of literature.

Yet “The Mighty Angel” is also a tale of redemption.

All of Jerzy's reflections, including the sums he does of what he's consumed (the equivalent of three thousand six hundred bottles of vodka in the past twenty years) and what it's cost, in cash as well as the human toll, and all these other sorry tales he's rewritten - do make him question his mindless devotion to drinking. Yet it isn't some logical step he takes, or a determined show of willpower that finally moves him to stop drinking. Instead, it is apparently something more intangible, less definable than his addiction to alcohol that leads him to break free of his routine. Without wishing to spoil the ending, this redemption is couched in the terms of unexpectedly found love – his apparent third passion. But I am unconvinced that this is not actually a further exercise in language, and the literature of romance, that Jerzy is employing to describe something ‘other’:- and that perhaps the ending of this book is not as ’redemptive’ as it appears….

If that last statement sounds vague and unsatisfying, then that is fine. For that is how I found the last section of the book. After the initial elegiac, affecting, yet unrelentingly realistic and honest descriptions of an individual’s tragic descent into addition; I found the ending strangely abstract, oblique and – despite its seemingly redemptive nature – disengaging. I’d welcome comments from anyone else who has read this work on their overriding impression of the book which – as I say – undoubtedly displays some beautiful and heart-rending prose, despite its structural shortcomings.

That said, I think Jerzy Pilch is a very talented writer and this is an impressive work; it just left me with a feeling of a lack of consistency in terms of narrative and purpose once I’d finished it. However, Pilch is one of a growing list of authors from this part of the continent whose works I shall seek out after my global trip has concluded.

In the meantime, my journey continues! In keeping with my general policy of combining sleep with travel where possible, I take the one direct night train from Warsaw’s ‘Warszawa Centralna’ station to Prague leaving at 9:35 p.m. and arriving at 7:05 am (having made the essential reservation for a sleeping coach!).

The train arrives at the main station (Hlavni Nadrazni) in Prague, which is close to Wenceslaus Square early in the morning, and thus I arrive at the next leg of my journey: “Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia” by Michal Viewegh:- one of the most popular contemporary Czech writers - and also the best-selling one... I shall update on this work in my next blog…

Monday, 12 April 2010

A Wooden Village in a Concrete Jungle: Slovakia

If there is a theme running through the past few books that I have covered in my trip through the Balkans and some ‘former East European’ states it is this: there is a world of difference between the relatively poor lives of the main populaces in these countries and the luxurious prospects promised them by the West (a luxury which, of course, also eludes many in the West itself). This is artificially reinforced in these places by imported fictional US television programmes and the riches associated with the local Mafia who have thrived in the post-Communist era in these benighted countries.

It is notable that all of the recent books that I have encountered depict ordinary, relatively decent, but disillusioned people against a backdrop of impoverishment and threats from local, newly-entrepreneurial ‘Mafia’ gangs who are exploiting the political, social and economic confusions of their newly ‘liberated’ nations for personal financial gain through criminal activity. In simple terms: for a lot of ordinary citizens, fear of the state has been replaced by fear of their more immediate society.

The next step on my World Trip is “The Wooden Village” by Peter Pišt'anek, set in Bratislava in the newly independent Slovakia of the 1990s. This is the second in Pišt'anek’s “Rivers of Babylon” trilogy, but serves perfectly well as a standalone novel: the main protagonist of the first book being relegated to a minor character here. Whilst broadly fitting the above description, the main protagonists presented in this work could hardly be described as ordinary or relatively decent…

These characters are an odd bunch, and they go to some extremes to get by. One couple makes their money by charging for the use of the public toilet they watch over – which is also where they sleep at night. They also make money during the day cleaning tables for an outdoor café bar and its surrounding booths (the ‘wooden village’ of the title). These are located in an underused car park – much to the chagrin of the car park attendant who lives on a trailer on the site, and whose tragicomic back story takes up a significant part of this book. Another is a sex worker who has been saving up money working at a brothel called the Perverts' Club in Austria so she can open up her own bordello catering to those same unusual tastes in Slovakia. Another (a former rock band drummer – as was the author) becomes a fake but much admired and very successful healer. As this healer states to a customer at one point, readers need to just: "Get used to it; nothing's too odd for Slovakia." Or, indeed, for Pišt'anek…

Among the side stories is that of an upper class woman who stumbles into the public toilet, finds herself aroused by her surroundings, and lets herself get pimped out by the couple there. Needless to say, it doesn't work out particularly well (for anyone concerned), but seems analogous for the sordid fall from grace of so much of Slovakian life (and its relatively quick and sad demise).

However, it is all oddly engaging - even despite the brutality and the bizarre sex practises. Indeed, the whole novel and its characters therein seem to operate in a self-contained alternate morality; one that allows you to sympathise (if not empathise) with them, despite their outlandish activities. Often Pišt'anek seems to be making the point that it is the wider society that has driven this people to their actions that is grotesque, rather than the individuals themselves… an interesting (albeit contentious) perspective.

Ultimately the sad fates don't wind up that sad after all, even if things don't go exactly as planned or hoped, and if parts of that are not entirely realistic - a baby gets sold off to some passing foreigners with hardly an afterthought, a man is flung out a sixth-floor window but has a guardian angel to soften the landing - Pišt'anek's aplomb carries almost everything off. Indeed, Pišt'anek displays a remarkable charm and good cheer in relating his stories, and though "The Wooden Village" feels more like a series of vignettes than its stronger predecessor and successor, it is very good fun despite itself. As with the previous work on my trip from Ukraine (“Death and the Penguin”) I shall certainly be seeking out the sequel to this book at the end of my global journey.

I now take my leave of Bratislava and travel to Warsaw in Poland, with Jerry Pilch’s “The Mighty Angel”. I decide to combine travel with a much-needed rest and so make an advance reservation for the daily 22.50 EuroNight overnight train to Warsaw’s rather dilapidated Central train station. Whilst the overnight takes a little longer (8 hours 20 minutes, arriving in Warsaw at 7.10 the next day), it does have the advantage of a reasonably comfortable sleeping car, and access to snacks and drinks if you want them. After a reasonable night’s sleep, I arrive in Poland and make my way the “The Mighty Angel”, the local pub from which the next novel gets its name.

(with thanks to The Complete Review)

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Death and Penguins in a surreal Ukraine...

For my stay in Kiev, in the Ukraine, I spent a few days in the company of frustrated author Viktor and his pet penguin, Misha - a depressive creature that he rescued from the local zoo and who now resides in his apartment flat; eating frozen fish and enjoying the occasional dip in an ice-cold bath.

Such a scenario is indicative of the humorous, slightly surreal style of this debut novel; yet belies the darker undertones that run through this book (it is, after all, called ‘Death and the Penguin’).

In searching for suitable books for my journey I have made good use of the online bookstore Amazon – especially as it features some very insightful reviews of certain books by highly articulate readers. My decision to read this book for my Ukraine stopover was largely influenced by an well-written, considered and accurate review by David J Loftus, of Portland USA. In fact I cannot sum this work up better than the review itself and so I will, if I may, defer to Mr Loftus’ review as the main blog entry for this book:

“Viktor, a lonely journalist nearing 40, lives in Kiev with an Emperor penguin he adopted a year ago when the zoo gave up many of the animals it could no longer afford to feed. Misha, the penguin, lives a quiet, subdued life consisting of little more than a steady diet of fish and cold baths.

“Happily, a newspaper hires Viktor to write advance obituaries: summings-up of notable persons' lives to be kept on file for the day the subject dies. It's steady work for decent pay. The editor even encourages Viktor to stretch out the pieces with a little literary-philosophical content.

“One day, a sinister but friendly visitor passes along his own obit assignments for very good money. When Viktor complains about having composed more than a hundred obits but having nothing published, the visitor asks which Viktor thinks is his best piece ... and within a day, the subject is dead! Complications and further deaths ensue.

“More assignments come from the mobster ("Misha-not-penguin"), who then leaves his young daughter with Viktor "for a short time," but never returns. Little Sonya comes with a big packet of money, so Viktor is able to hire 20-year-old Nina as a day nanny for her. Soon, this quasi-family is settled in for the long haul -- with their penguin -- except that more and more of Viktor's obituary subjects get killed!

“Death and the Penguin is written in a dry, simple style. The chapters are short, the narrative rarely embellished. Though there is plenty of humor, it is not laugh-out-loud but of the wry-smile-to-oneself variety.

“This is not magic realism, but straight realistic narrative of people (and penguin) behaving quite plausibly under increasingly-odd circumstances. It's a queerly unsensational story that seems perversely matter-of-fact, but accelerates into a sudden and very satisfying climax.”

My one quibble with the above review is that – whilst I found the ending sudden to the point of abruptness – I did not find it satisfying, and was left pondering over too many loose ends (especially in regards to Misha!). However, I note that the author Andrey Kurkov, has written a sequel to this novel (“Penguin Lost”) which seeks to resolve this issue. Whilst bound to my 'Round the World' literary trip for the foreseeable future, this is one book I will definitely be seeking out when I have completed my journey!

And now I make my way from Kiev to the capital of neighbouring Slovakia: Bratislava (represented by the visceral novel “The Wooden Village” by native author Peter Pi's-Tanek). Having had enough of plodding trains and bumpy car journeys for a while, I elect to make the trip between these two capital cities by plane. Via a taxi, I get a cheap flight with Malev Hungarian Airlines from Kiev airport (actually known as 'Boryspil International Airport', which is 18 miles east of Kiev itself) leaving at 16.15 and - after a brief stopover back in Budapest - I arrive in Bratislava at 21.00 in the evening, from where I get the N61 bus into the city centre...

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Back to the USSR (in Transnistria)

For a tiny state which is not recognised by any UN country, it is perhaps ironic that Transnistria’s book forms the biggest and most imposing book on my global travel bookcase to date!

This constitutes an impressive A4 book with a number of personal accounts translated into German, English and Russian; along with an absolutely beautiful range of photographs which perfectly capture Transnistrian life in terms of intimate family life in apartment blocks; work in the local radio station; and photos of high profile political candidates.

On a personal level; this was one of the stopovers I was most looking forward to. For many people in the West, Transnistria doesn’t even exist. Moldova and the Ukraine are vague entities in Western media, and so a country desperate to acknowledge its own existence between these two countries is going to struggle in terms of gaining any sort of profile.

The authors of this book; Kramar and Marcell Nimfuehr (both from Austria); explored this fascinating region on the left bank of the Dniestr for more than five years. They got to known the land and the people: they did reportage, interviews and made friends. One of these was a young college lecturer and translator, Andrey Smolensky. Together they explored places that no Western journalist had access to in producing this book.

This is a pictorial book, a political account, a travel account, a book on propaganda and counter-propaganda. With "This is Radio PMR", the Austrian authors – along with their native Transnistrian contacts - have created a visually stunning photographic portrait. As well as their impressive photographs a number of transcribed radio-shows and interviews help to depict a colourful image of "the little Soviet Union".

For me, there are two particularly enlightening sections.

The first deals with “The War of Transnistria” which followed armed clashes on a limited scale that broke out between Transnistrian separatists and Moldova as early as November 1990 at Dubăsari. Volunteers, including Cossacks, came from Russia and Ukraine to help the separatist side. Starting from March 2 1992, there was concerted military action between Moldova and Transnistria. Throughout early 1992 the fighting intensified. The former Soviet 14th Guards Army entered the conflict in its final stage, opening fire against Moldovan forces and since then, Moldova has exercised no effective control or influence on Transnistrian authorities. A ceasefire agreement was signed on July 21, 1992 and has held to the present day. This is seen as a significant date in Transnistrian history, along with other dates relevant to the establishment of the USSR, such as the October Revolution, which are still observed. The accounts by veterans and widows of this recent conflict are particularly affecting – especially as they are accompanied by images of the deceased, and the families left to mourn them.

The second section deals with the cultural side of Transnistria – and involves accounts by a younger, more questioning section of the populace. An interesting example is Artiom Nikolaevich Masur, a young actor and musician, whose views contrast sharply with many of the establishment voices heard in this work. His direct perspective cuts through much of the formulaic political commentary that we encounter elsewhere in the book. For instance, he states: “I Am Moldovan, but I don’t care. Nationalities are stupid…I also wouldn’t call myself Pridnestrovian. It’s all politics. I am not interested in politics…I am simply Artiom”. This individualist view shows that despite its strict pro-Soviet society, counter-culture - in limited form perhaps - does exists in Transnistria.

It is interesting that the Radio PMR of the title (depicted through snippets of broadcasts in the mid-2000s translated by Andrey Smolensky) is largely pro-PMR. The provocative title “This is Radio PMR” echoes the call signs of freedom radio of subjugated nations in the Second World War; however it quickly becomes apparent that many residents of Transnistria DO see themselves as a subjugated nation – seeking freedom from their perceived threat by Moldova, which of course still sees Transnistria as part of its territory. As Andrey states of his broadcasts: “The ultimate aim is to break Moldova’s information blockade against the PMR”.

As such Radio PMR is both an opposition station (against the de jure government of Moldova) and a pro-government station (for the de facto rule of the PMR).

This complex scenario demonstrates the complexity of this disputed nation which this book seeks to represent. It is notable that this book is also, primarily, a photobook (as they say in the cliché:- "a picture paints a thousand words") and the beautiful imagery certainly gives an insightful overview of this nation – from the cramped but homely apartments of its residents, to the grand Soviet-style parades of its government.

If I have one gripe about the production of this book it is this: all too-often, gorgeous two-page photo spreads are marred by the crease in the middle of the book - this volume would perhaps have worked better visually if it were hinged at the left hand edge rather than in the middle, to give the pictures their full impact.

I now take my leave of this strange and contentious - yet fascinating – region to continue my journey into the Ukraine. I considered taking the one daily bus to Kiev from Tiraspol, but - worried about the many online stories about harassment and bribery requests from border guides – I decide to play it safe and, through asking around with a few key contacts; I manage to secure the services of a Russian-speaking driver with a private car with Russian number plates, who will take me from Tiraspol to Kiev direct. Fortunately the border guards seemed disinterested in my transport (they had just pulled over a minibus and taken a couple of Western-looking travellers over for an ‘interview’ in a small hut with four looming guards) and so I was able to continue my journey unmolested into the Ukraine’s capital city Kiev, and the book “Death And The Penguin” by native author Andrey Kurkov.

Monday, 5 April 2010

A Cold War of Words in Moldova

My stay in the Republic of Moldova took in the book “Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family”. This book, by Canadian writer Stephen Henighan, details his time spent billeted with a typical Moldovan family in a small apartment in the capital, Chişinău, whilst teaching English at the local University.

As such we get a uniquely intimate look – through the eyes of a Westerner – of the day to day lives of this family, whose concerns, hopes and beliefs in turn give a wider insight into this confused country. Henighan’s role as a language teacher is crucial here: for the tension between the dominant languages of Russian, Romanian and Moldovan (essentially Romanian, but rarely recognised as such, even by the native speakers) demonstrates wider tensions among descendants of Russians imported into the country during the cold war, and those who believe that Moldova should be culturally and ethnically (and economically) linked with its neighbour, Romania. By some, Russian is seen as the language of Soviet colonialism, whereas others see Moldovan as a degenerate language, not fit for the key purposes of civil service and ‘bizniz’. The fact that a language law is about to be passed during Henighan’s visit, declaring Romanian the country’s official language – gives these divisions a particularly political edge.

As with Paula Huntley’s “The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo”, Henighan’s classroom of students - or ‘little dictators’ as he half-affectionately calls them - provide a barometer of society here, with a contentious mix of Romanian and Russian speakers, each with their own views of the country’s situation (and of the West, which Henighan is seen as typifying, until he disappoints his acquaintances by revealing that he is not up to date with the latest technological gadgets, does not own his own house and is not in regular touch with Michael Jackson).

Throughout the book Henighan cleverly uses the divisive issue of language here, to demonstrate the wider divisions within this complex society. For instance, Henighan is angrily berated a number of times when trying to purchase items in shops, for not speaking Russian; and on one occasion, whilst sitting with a group of Romanians in the dusty communal square outside his hosts’ apartment, the group all uniformly switch to Russian, as soon as a sole Russian speaker joins them.

These divisions are seen within Henighan’s host family as well – Dora and Senya and their two sons Serge and Andrei: whereas Dora speaks mainly Romanian, her son, Andrei, speaks mainly Russian, which he sees as the language of ‘bizniz’, and he is dismissive of Romanian. Some of Henighan’s greatest insights into life in early 1990s Moldova come through his depictions of family life – especially in Dora’s world-weary view of the world, and 20-year old Andrei’s frustration at the lack of job opportunities in his homeland, which is finely balanced between comedy (in his scheme to bring the Jackson family to play a concert in Moldova) and tragedy (in his inevitable gravitation towards a life of petty crime with the local ‘mafia’ gangs).

Some of the broader depictions of life in this economically-struggling country are also telling; the purchase of a carton of orange juice is seen as a luxury – costing almost a month’s salary – and the casual mugging of Henighan on a tram by the local ‘police’ is especially shocking. Yet Henighan has an obvious and genuine warmth towards this lost province, and seems especially comfortable in the communal square outside his building where people of all ages gather to chat, play and drink wine from the nearby kiosks. He sees this as a 'little village' in the midst of a grey metropolis, and identifies here the remnants of traditional Moldovan communal life.

However, one cannot but help feel a sense of pessimism for this struggling country, and this is borne out by Henighan’s return visit, ten years later in 2001. On the surface of it things seem to have improved – the street-life in downtown Chişinău seems more lively and vibrant, with global chains (including the inevitable McDonalds) and designer brands on show. However his visit to Dora – now estranged from her husband and sons, still living in the same apartment block – shows this to be a thin veneer of success. As Dora says: “you have to understand that in the past few years life here has been very, very hard. Many families have broken up….All that stuff you see downtown, near your hotel – that’s not for us, that’s not for ordinary people. For most people things are getting worse and worse.”

The fact that Dora’s own family unit has broken up – she is divorcing Senya, and no longer speaks to Andrei or Serge, whose allegiance now lies with the local criminal gangs – is an effective depiction of a wider social malaise in this complex country.

All in all, this is a well-written, entertaining and insightful look at life in the 1990s in this complex, divided yet engaging post-Soviet country. I would be fascinated to hear about the lives of these individuals a decade on from the Epilogue, in 2011...

And so from one complex, divided place to another – and one which is intractably linked with Moldova itself…

Transnistria, also known as Trans-Dniester or Transdniestria is a breakaway territory located mostly in a strip between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border to Ukraine. It is generally recognised internationally as being de jure in Eastern Moldova as the autonomous region Stînga Nistrului. Since its declaration of independence in 1990, and especially after the War of Transnistria in 1992, it is governed de facto by the unrecognised Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR, also known as "Pridnestrovie"), which claims the east bank of the river Dniester and a small area located on the right bank of the Dnestr river. The modern Republic of Moldova does not recognise this secession and considers territories controlled by the PMR to be a part of Moldova's sovereign territory. Transnistria's sovereignty is not recognised by any member of the United Nations and it has no official diplomatic relations with any of those states, although it has strong ties with Russia, as well as being recognised by the disputed former Soviet states of Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

I take the slow train from Chişinău to the capital city of Tiraspol, arriving two hours later to a scene that could be straight out of Soviet-era Russian – a large tank greets the train as it rolls into the station, and upon leaving the station I am met with a large embossed plaque featuring Lenin in the small square outside. I look forward to updating you on the book “This Is Radio PMR: News From Transnistria” soon.