In Berlin last week, I walked with friends out of the city, along where the wall used to be – where the birch trees have been growing freely for a quarter of a century. “That should make you feel right at home, coming from Finland,” my friend said. And so at Tegel Airport, I bought this book.
I’d finished Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt by the time I’d landed and left the airport in Helsinki. I was thrilled to see that it has been translated into English – as All Russians Love Birch Trees. You can access both language editions through the translator’s website. Reading an extract in English just hours after finishing the German, I was tempted to start all over again. Eva Bacon really got Olga Gjasnowa’s voice in English.
And what a voice it is. This woman is brilliant, and tough – she’s had to be. Born in Azerbaijan, Gjasnowa emigrated to Germany at the age of 12, fleeing war and post-Soviet fallout, and has lived in Poland, Russia and Israel too. Her heroine, Mascha, has a similar story, and moves between identities and languages with ease, standing up for herself despite the racism she encounters at every turn. She is at home everywhere and nowhere – and her future lies on a knife edge. The end of the novel came as a violent shock, but perhaps not as a surprise, after all…
If you’re in Boston tonight, you can hear Gjasnowa reading from this book, and in conversation with her translator, at the Goethe Institute. If you aren’t, you can hear her talking about it in German here: “I don’t believe heimat really exists”, she says. Or start reading their next book, Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe/The Legal Haziness of a Marriage, in an English extract on the Words without Borders website. It’s not comfortable reading, but can’t think of a better way to kick off women’s day tomorrow. Can you?