Given the number of prematurely world-weary young men and women who followed the lure of easy money, cheap alcohol and even cheaper sex to the geopolitical discount bins of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, it only stands to reason that this particular “lost generation” has begun to memorialize itself on and off the bestseller lists. The past two years have seen a veritable boom in fictional accounts of the experience of North American expatriates in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The authors are all varying shades of young; at 30, if the Russian-born Gary Shteyngart had never left home, he would only recently have been excluded from the Young Communist League’s generous definition of “youth.” With the exception of Jonathan Franzen, all of these authors have turned their experiences into fodder for unabashedly autobiographical first novels (all subtitled “A Novel,” presumably to set the reader straight). Yet their tone is doubly elegiac, a look back at lost youth in lost lands. A decade after the USSR’s surprisingly peaceful demise, six men look back on their emergence into adulthood in a world that briefly promised to be their perfect playground.
It’s hard to say what is more surprising about this crop of post-Communist safari novels: that there are so many of them (six!) or so few (only six?). To the extent that the average expat could be said to have had a clearly defined goal, if a young North American man in the former Warsaw Pact countries was not trying to make a killing as a cross between a missionary and a venture capitalist (a hybrid that was unimaginable before the 1990s), he was secretly hoping to turn these bleak industrial landscapes into literary gold mines. Purely as a matter of statistics, one could expect at least this many novels to emerge from the expat experience, like the proverbial infinite number of monkeys eventually typing their way toward Shakespearean sonnets. But there was no reason to expect that so many of them would be so good.
A cursory look at the names of these authors immediately leads to a nagging question: Where are the women? Why is it that the expat experience ends up represented as so fundamentally masculine? North American women did travel to Eastern Europe in the 1990s, working roughly the same jobs as the men. And such women figure prominently in the two novels most directly preoccupied with expat life (Prague and The Winter Zoo), and in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Yet the expat voice comes across best in a feckless, frat-boy baritone (for an “authentic” example from the time, see the eXile, an anthology from the Russian expat newspaper of the same name). If the tale of young American men wandering throughout Old Europe is familiar and predictable, a heroine’s story is certainly no harder to imagine. But where are the accounts of naïve young women seduced by the suave, if oily, charms of Eastern European sophisticates? They can be found, but only in novels written by men.
There is a certain logic to this: Ultimately, the post-Communist expat’s story is a fundamentally male narrative of conquest, submission and coming of age. The expat experience was a perfect juncture between self-congratulatory Western machismo and the cultural anxieties of the cold war’s losers and victims. One of the commonplaces of the post-Soviet media, for example, is that Russia (always represented as female) has fallen prey to Western despoilers, who ravage the country’s national resources, corrupt the morals of innocent youth and turn its women into a valuable commodity for export. It is remarkable how much the heroes of these North American novels resemble their depiction in the imaginings of the post-Communist “natives” themselves. Though they may not be as nakedly cynical as the Western villains of post-Soviet potboilers, these young men are indulging in the very activities that define their caricatured counterparts: drinking, pillaging and whoring.
Indeed, sex and drunken debauchery are these characters’ primary means of getting to know their surroundings (Milan Kundera clearly has a lot to answer for). Note the randomness that motivates the protagonists of nearly all of these novels: With the exception of the hero of Leaving Katya, none of these men have any particular reason to choose the country they visit. These are not stories about immersing oneself in a beloved foreign culture; such supporting characters can be found in The Winter Zoo and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and they are female. Instead, the heroes are like typical college students on study-abroad programs, roaming thousands of miles on a journey of self-discovery. Travel may broaden the mind, but it narrows the vision, facilitating an obsessive, adolescent-narrative navel-gazing.