Broken Soviet Scene
DBC Pierre's second novel is a tale of globalization, guns
and cherry-flavored madness.
by Willa Rohrer
In 2003 an Australian writing under the name DBC (Dirty but Clean)
Pierre won Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize for his first novel Vernon
God Little, a rambunctious satire about a Texas teenager accused of participating
in a Columbine-style slaughter. Pierre's much-anticipated new book Ludmila's
Broken English jumps across the ocean to London and the Caucasus Mountains.
Part farce, part globalization-themed morality play, part Mad Libs exercise,
it's an occasionally brilliant but frequently tedious fable about the collision
of old and new worlds.
In an England of the near future, the recently privatized medical
establishment decides to separate Blair and Gordon "Bunny" Heath, 33-year-old
Siamese twins raised in an institution called Albion. (Yes, Albion is also an ancient
name for Britain, and Blair and Gordon are the names of British politicians.) Released
into society for the first time, the Heath boys settle in London, where they guzzle
gin, hurl insults and bedpans at each other, and bicker about the meaning of freedom.
Meanwhile, in an impoverished war-torn corner of the former Soviet
empire, young Ludmila Derev dreams of going west with her lover, a soldier named
Mikhail. But after Ludmila accidentally kills her lecherous grandfather, the family
breadwinner, her mother and grandmother send her on a wild tractor ride to nearby
Kuzhnisk in hopes that her marginal English skills will fetch a paycheck. After
a number of outrageous plot twists-involving, for example, a Russian-brides
website and a cherry-flavored cocktail mix/erection enhancer named after a brand
of gun-the two families' lives violently intertwine.
It goes without saying that subtlety isn't really DBC Pierre's
thing. Vernon God Little didn't win praise for its carefully crafted
plot or realistic characters, but for its stylistic originality, as evidenced in
the voice of its 15-year-old narrator. Though Ludmila's Broken English
is told in the third person, Pierre is still interested in bold idiomatic expression,
an interest that explains the book's strengths as well as its flaws.
Pierre's most ambitious (and successful) act of ventriloquism
is to translate a fictitious dialect into hilariously stilted yet strangely eloquent
English: Ludmila and her peasant family conduct elaborate tirades in Ubli, a language
"exquisitely tailored to the expression of disdain," which contains gems
such as, "Don't piss grease down my throat" and "Cut your goosey
Unfortunately, Pierre exhausts this device with a quirky narrative
style that resembles an equally awkward, but less endearing, translation. The first
few chapters are overloaded with lines like: "An icy gust ran its fingers through
her hair, flicked it high around her face, to seem like ravens abducting a cherub."
See also: "His brow found some mauve distance," "Organs like sausages
popped and spat," and "Blair took wide, bouncing steps-partly in
aid of balance, partly to achieve the correct billow for his oncoming life of cashmere
strewn carelessly over teak."
If Pierre is attempting a parody of literary description, the
wit quickly wears off. Even bleaker, though, is the possibility that he's serious.
Of course one might argue that quirkiness is the point, that it's
entirely appropriate for a novel about "broken English"-a novel concerned
with the idea of cultural and linguistic crossing-to push boundaries with its
own language. Ultimately, however, mechanically antic prose like this doesn't
push much of anything-not because it's too unconventional or difficult,
but because it lacks the artistry to be either.
Bored by Pierre's incessant pursuit of cleverness, I began
to dream up a Ludmila's Broken English drinking game-a shot of
vodka for every labored description of eyeballs, and a swig of Olde English for
every phrase that seemed to have been generated by a magnetic poetry kit-but
soon realized I'd be dead before chapter five. Maybe the author had a similar
realization; gradually, for no apparent reason, the narrative limps toward standard
English, as if Pierre simply ran out of steam and decided to let the novel's
zany plot impress us instead.
What almost redeems Ludmila's Broken English is Ludmila
herself. Pierre has genuine affection for his razor-tongued heroine, which makes
it impossible to dismiss her as just another gimmick in a gimmick-laden novel. Unlike
most of the other characters, Ludmila emerges as an actual human being, not just
a representative of her people, her part of the world, or her author's genius.
You wonder how much more interesting the book would've been if Pierre had managed
to cut his goosey flap.
Ludmila's Broken English
By DBC Pierre