Adventures with Russian lit

Can a book be gloomy and hilarious at the same time?

Yes, if it's "The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them," by Elif Batuman.

Batuman has spent years studying the Russian language and its literature, as well as a host of eastern European languages. But not so she can travel to balmy locales and meet carefree, welcoming people. "The Possessed" is more like a catalogue of misadventures.

After her freshman year in college, Batuman took a summer job teaching English to Hungarians. In her third week there, she was sent to help at a children's camp.

"Unknown parties had strongly impressed upon the camp organizers that I, as an American, ate nothing but corn and watermelon. Every day they brought me cans and cans of corn, and nearly a whole watermelon, which I ate alone in the cabin," Batuman writes.

Following her sophomore year, she turned down a job offer from a Peruvian entrepreneur who said she could be his secretary pending submission of a "recent full-body photograph," and instead chose to travel to Turkey on a writing assignment for "Let's Go" travel guides.

In Turkey, she grew frustrated by the fad of "'shoestring travel': the quest for an idyll where, for three U.S. dollars, Mustafa would serve you a home-cooked meal and tell you about his hair collection.... The travelers lived in terror of getting ripped off, or missing an 'authentic' experience. The locals were terrified lest they miss some 'opportunity' afforded by the foreign visitors."

The locals demanded that Batuman lure rich foreigners to their establishments. A tour bus operator wanted her to get his uncle a kidney transplant in Houston.

At a conference in Russia devoted to author Leo Tolstoy, Batuman was obliged to wear her traveling clothes — flip-flops, sweatpants and a flannel shirt — for four days after the airline lost her luggage. Fortunately, many of the international scholars there assumed she was a Tolstoyan and had taken a vow to wear sandals and the same peasant shirt every day. Calls to the Russian airport to check on the status of her luggage produced only sighs from the clerk working there and this response: "When we find the suitcase we will send it to you. In the meantime, are you familiar with our Russian phrase 'resignation of the soul?'"

In Uzbekistan while studying Old Uzbek, Batuman discovered that the language has a hundred different words for crying, which "didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation."

"Old Uzbek has words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound 'hay hay,'" Batuman wrote.

Her Old Uzbek teacher told Batuman that saints must conquer 78 flaws in the human character, and master 200 human virtues. Virtues include the ability to communicate with animals, ghosts and plants. The teacher recounted her own saintly experience when she wanted to throw trash in a Dumpster, but was frightened by a large black dog standing by the garbage receptacle. Then the dog walked away, communicating to the teacher, "I know you're afraid, but don't worry. I mean you no harm."

In addition to language lessons, Batuman got makeup lessons from her landlady in Uzbekistan, who liked to paint Batuman's eyebrows together into a unibrow and then remark, "You really should pay more attention to your appearance."

When responding to the absurd situations she encountered during her travels, Batuman found it was much better to laugh inwardly than to cry while uttering the sound "hay hay."

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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