REVIEW by Phillip Clement

NWR Issue 104

Sunbathing in Siberia, A Marriage of East & West in Post-Soviet Russia

by MA Oliver-Seminov

Without aiming to be a survival guide, romance or autobiography, Sunbathing in Siberia manages to be all and none, offering a charming and thought provoking perspective of life in modern Russia. Told in transit via the Trans-Siberian Railway and a series of post Russian jets, it describes in detail the romantic, From Russia with Love-esque allure of a country few of us truly understand, complete with bears, domovoi (house-elves), and blessed warheads:

Each cabin had a speaker... used only to announce stations... On that morning they were playing a long romantic song... called ‘My Krasnoyarsk’... a memorial perhaps for the time when the Trans-Siberian had been more romantic.

Sunbathing in Siberia follows Oliver-Semenov (AKA Mao the Poet) in a near epic quest across Siberia for citizenship. A journey that is fraught with administrative bureaucracy and frequent visits to various dingy health centers for an ‘I Don’t Have AIDS’ certificate. This is narrated with a sense of purpose and unsparing detail that seems to distract him from the inevitable consequences of his relocation. There’s a loveable insecurity in his retelling of a point in the early stages of his relationship with his future wife, a time at which he thought her capable of cannibalism:

I knew that she loved me. I knew from our first meeting in Paris in January 2010... Knowing this, it was crazy to think even for a moment that she could wish me any harm, or look at me like I would taste good with potatoes and tomato sauce.

Happily Mao is able to quiet these spousal misgivings and the two are quickly married, leaving him little time to consider those things he will leave behind. Later in the novel, when he is preparing for his last-but-one flight to Russia, the weight of his decision to relocate seems to settle on him inviting a period of characteristic candid introspection:

Sat on the plane I thought of all the things my dad and I would never do together. We had always been very close... My dad had never failed to come to my book launches, poetry readings and birthday parties... Now I was flying to the other half of the world, planning to move there permanently.

While in a state of ‘visa-flux’, it’s clear that Oliver-Semenov experiences a crisis of identity and nationality. Typically of the memoir, these insecurities are investigated as candidly any other subject: 'Having the same name as my father had left me feeling as though I didn’t have an identity of my own... However, sat on the plane, my birth name printed on my ticket was one of the few things I had to identify myself as myself.’ Mao’s seemingly ceaseless ability for honest and frank prose is one of this book’s real strengths.

Eventually, as relations between the UK and Russia become strained, Oliver-Seminov’s position between the two countries becomes more complex. Speaking after the passing of the Russian law that banned ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’, he writes: ‘I felt equally as intimidated at the thought of discussing it... for fear of being mis-understood.’ With tensions on both sides mounting, he writes tenderly of his emotions at the time, understanding enough of both cultures to offer opinions but feeling unable to communicate those thoughts in either.

Cerys Jones describes Oliver-Semenov's memoir is a ‘contemporary Dr Zhivago with health warnings’, and she’s right to do so, Sunbathing in Siberia situates itself between two cultures at a time in which it is most necessary to do so, interrogating and exploring national identities. Insightful and hilarious, the memoir prompts the reader to re-evaluate their approach to the East; in the words of an engineer he meets at a Christmas party: ‘There’s no reason two superpowers can’t get along and be friends. They shouldn’t feel like they have to engage each other just because they are powerful.’

Philip Clement writes for New Welsh Review and has recently completed a year-long marketing residency at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden Flintshire.

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previous review: A Gift of Sunlight: The Fortune and Quest of the Davies Sisters of Llandinam
next review: The Bad Doctor: The Troubled Life & Times of Dr Iwan James


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