REVIEW: The Funeral Party, by Ludmila Ulitskaya
The Funeral Party, by Ludmila Ulitskaya. This edition published 2002 by Schocken Books/Random House.

The Funeral Party is another little gem by Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, who as it happens was recently nominated for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, along with other luminaries such as Peter Carey, V.S. Naipaul, Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa. With names like that, the list of nominees for the 2009 prize reads like a who's-who of international literary fiction and Ulitskaya deserves to be among them. She's the only author I've found through book blogs to become a mainstay on my bookshelf, and I'm glad I found her. (Last year I read and reviewed her novel Medea and Her Children; click here for my review.)

This little novel (just 160 pages) is the story of the last days of Alik, a Russian Jewish emigre wasting away of an unknown ailment. An artist, he lives with wife Nina in a bare-bones apartment paid for by someone else, with a steady stream of friends, well-wishers and lovers both past and present flowing through the building and the narrative. The drama of this very laid-back novel concerns Nina's efforts to get Alik baptized before he dies, so they can be together in the afterlife; a Russian Orthodox Christian, she is apoplectic that they might be separated forever when he dies. To this end, she enlists a priest, and, at his request, a rabbi as well, to help convince him to go through with it. This plot in particular provides a bit of the bittersweet farce which actually characterizes the novel as a whole.

Meanwhile Alik is the center of the emotional lives of his lovers Vera and Valentina as well, and each woman jockeys for the central position in his life, viewing the others with a mixture of pity and scorn. The novel goes back and forth through time as each woman's story is told, with Alik always an engima at the center of their lives. His apartment is portrayed as a kind of way-station for misfits, friends, and hangers-on, a microcosm of his life. Ulitskaya is a very skilled literary writer who populates his world with eccentric, vivid characters- even the minor characters are drawn with a skilled eye and economical use of detail. She writes in a style both matter-of-fact- "The landlord of the building was a louse," she states flatly at the opening one chapter- and wholly readable.

Character-driven and meticulous, I won't say The Funeral Party is page-turner but you'll want to know how these characters end up, how Alik ends up, and how his community deals with the loss of this charismatic man. It's a literary story of the modern European immigrant experience and of relations between men and women, and I think readers who like Ulitskaya's fellow Man Booker International nominees will enjoy it.

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