Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Good Life Elsewhere

The Good Life Elsewhere written by Vladimir Lorchenkov, Published by New Vessel Press

Vladimir Lorchenkov’s darkly comedic and brilliant novel The Good Life Elsewhere is a perfect example of the phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side”. As such, it is an appropriate book for our times even though it was originally published in 2008 (in Russian) prior to the English language translation in 2014. In our current world, headlines mention people migrating from their country to another in massive numbers. Of course, politicians are using these headlines as a means to increase fear and gain votes. None of these politicians are bothering to ask why people are looking to come to their country. None of these politicians will ever bother to watch Pedro Pinho’s essential film The Nothing Factory (2017) which asked the vital question of what work means in modern society. The film showed the closing of factories in Europe as some of those factories moved eastwards due to the owners' need to increase their profit (ahem, capitalism). Yet, the owners may or may not realise that their move eastwards is only temporary even though that temporary time could be decades. One day, everyone will have enough of material X that these factories make. Then, no one on this planet will need X. What then? Who is thinking of how to ensure the workers have meaningful work or their skills are properly used? Not the factory owners and certainly not the politicians. The workers are then left to fend for themselves. Eventually, poverty and desperation force some of these workers to seek their life elsewhere and they dream of migrating to the promised land which is what Lorchenkov’s book accurately captures.

The promised land in Lorchenkov’s book is Italy, a country that becomes an obsession for Serafim Botezatu and his fellow residents from Larga, a village in Moldova. Italy, at all costs! The book goes on to describe some of those details in wicked delight even though that humour is built on top of tragedy and sadness, some of which include suicide, broken hearts and murder.

“Verily, the people were expecting a miracle. Once the Italian rulers beheld them, so said the people, two hundred thousand children, yearning for the embrace of their mothers and fathers, then the heart of Rome would surely expand and grant every Moldovan the right to work in Italy without a visa and to bring with him whichever of his loved ones he desired. And only the children, free of turpitude, could give the Moldovan people something to replace the Holy Sepulchre; only they could grant us our innermost dreams.

Only the children could deliver us the blessed land of Italy.”
— page 174, The Good Life Elsewhere

The book is specific with regards to Moldova and its situation with respect to neighbouring Romania and the rest of the European union but the sentiments are universal. In one instance, the book expands its scope and compares the plight of Moldovan migrants to Mexicans as two characters argue which migrants are harder to catch. Yet, many references to Moldovans could easily be replaced with other nationalities across Latin America/Africa/Asia or regions where people make the difficult and dangerous journey to another nation, legally or illegally, to seek a better life. What happens when they get there? Usually hardships, disappointments and tough jobs. To compound matters, there is always the distrust of the locals who easily jump to blaming the newcomers for taking jobs. Israel Adrián Caetano’s 1999 film Bolivia captures this rage perfectly. The following is the description of the film I wrote back in 2008, which coincidentally is the year of Lorchenkov’s original book publication.

An illegal Bolivian works in a local cafe/pub. Some of the local patrons include taxi drivers, including one who dislikes the Bolivian. Everything the Bolivian does is wrong. For example, when he brings a bottle of beer from the freezer, he is scolded for not bringing a cold bottle, even though he returns and brings a second bottle from the exact same freezer. When someone dislikes another person, no matter what the other person does is wrong. Simple fact of life. It is equally true in any part of the world. It appears to be only a matter of time when emotions will boil over and they eventually do. Beautifully shot in black and white, Bolivia gives a glimpse of the frictions that exist in daily life. While the Clashes are started by government decisions regarding employment and immigration, the prices are always paid by ordinary citizens. If a poor nation shares a border with a richer nation, then illegal border crossing will occur. But if the apparently rich nation does not have enough jobs for its own citizens, then anger is directed at the newly arrived persons. The newcomer is always blamed for the misfortunes of a nation. Amazingly, one can walk the streets of Canada or USA and hear similar sentiments. Bolivia is shot in Argentina but it may take place in any part of the world.

Newcomers get vilified in whichever nation they land in, even though most of them end up doing jobs that locals don’t want to do. Lorchenkov’s book even addresses this statement with a cold dash of realism. As two characters at the Italian Consulate in Romania discuss:

“What’s sickening is that Moldovans seem to think without them we’ll sink, because, as one cheeky laborer told me, there’ll be nobody to clean up our shit.”

“Thank you. I told him that nature doesn’t abide vacuums. Where there used to be two hundred thousand Moldovans, now there’ll be two hundred thousand Moroccans, Albanians, Serbs, Poles, or whoever else. There’s always somebody to clean up the shit. What’s your opinion?”

Some newcomers are more vilified than others yet history often forgets. The history of Canada and USA is packed with cases of newcomers that were once hated but now considered a fabric of their respective nation. The hate keeps shifting every few decades to a new group of migrants from another nation. The core problems as to why the migration takes place is never addressed by the nation whose citizens want to leave or by the nations who want to prevent those newcomers from entering.

Despite all the problems they face, the characters in the book, including Serafim, persist in their quest to make it to Italy after each failed attempt. For Italy is happiness. Their dreams of going to Italy has a very Beckettian flavour to it where the characters are often waiting for someone to take them to Italy or Italy is their “Godot”, for Italy will make everything better. The dark comedy in the book, especially the ending, has shades of Emir Kusturica’s Underground while some of the absurd sequences recall Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land and the mud of the village brings Béla Tarr’s cinema to mind.

The original came out in 2008, the English translation in 2014, yet the book is as relevant today in 2018 as when it was in those previous years. Given the way the world is going, the book will always be relevant and essential to each new generation.