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Ludmila Ulitskaya: Веселые похороны (The Funeral Party)

A thoroughly enjoyable Russian novel set in New York, it tells the story of Alik who is dying (and eventually dies) in a New York apartment. Alik is an artist who emigrated to the United States twenty years previously and has struggled to make a life and career as an artist but has somehow held on, with a little help from his friends. He is now dying in his bed of an unknown and incurable disease. With him, in this sweltering apartment (they can’t afford air conditioning) are various friends and family members, including his wife Nina and his two former lovers Irina (with her fifteen-year old daughter Mikail) and Valentina.

Alik had been married to Nina in Russia but had divorced her and emigrated to the USA without her. He had taken up with Irina, a circus performer, but when Nina was able to escape from the Soviet Union (with a bogus marriage to an American), he felt obliged to resume his life with her and Irina walked out. They have only recently become reacquainted. He had met Valentina in a kosher sandwich shop. She had recently come to the USA and spoke little English and was struggling, though had a job and was learning English. They started an affair which took place between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m., the only time Valentina had available and which suited Alik, as Nina was usually in a drunken stupor by then.

But now we watch Alik slowly die, as the small apartment is full of a motley assortment of mainly Russians though a cast of characters joins in, including a Paraguayan band, whose members barely speak Spanish (their language is Guarani) let alone English. Ulitskaya tells a wonderful story of Russians and others coming and going, partying, gossiping, recounting tales of the old country, reminiscing. Nina tries to get him to convert to Christianity and gets in a priest but Alik insists on having a rabbi, to get both sides of the story (he is not in the slightest bit religious) and the meeting of the priest and the rabbi is just one of the hilarious moments of the book, with Ulitskaya mocking both. Alik himself is a lively character. Though dying and, indeed, after death, with a tape he had prepared and left with Mikail whom he insists on call Tee-shirt to play at his wake, he keeps up the conversation and the humour.

Above all, this is a wonderful tale of Russians just before the fall of the Soviet Union – watching the fall on TV is one of their distractions – and their strong sense of community and enjoyment of life, despite lacking money. Food and drink, sex, friendship, art, perhaps religion, these are their motivating forces and all of it is done with laughter and joy, even in the sadness of death.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by Vagrius
First English translation in 1999 by Victor Gollancz
Translated by Cathy Porter