An American Tail: Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

There’s a ‘Polish Yellow Pages” for the Greater Toronto Area. 200 pages for business listings of all types. Ostensibly, it’s to promote the growth of business that are operated by Polish immigrants. Practically, it’s a tool for Polish people to use to find business so they don’t have to worry about being cheated by a stranger. A Pole who shares your homeland is never a stranger and so is always trustworthy. When I was ten, my dad hired a Ukrainian guy to do the floors in our house. The Polish guy just couldn’t match the Ukrainian’s rate. Months later, my dad discovered that a wrench was missing from his set in the garage.

“It was the Ukrainian,” he cursed. For years, he talked about the wrench and the theft he had suffered for letting a stranger into his house. We found the wrench on the floor of the garage when my parents moved out of that house. No matter. The lawyer who handled the real estate transaction for the sale of that house was from the Polish yellow pages. It’s the exact sort of thing that would have infuriated Pasha, the hapless poet at the centre of Panic in a Suitcase.

Pasha is the last of his family to have remained in Russia, his parents and sister left for more democratic pastures years ago but when his mother is diagnosed with cancer he can no longer put off a visit to America. When he arrives in New York’s Brighton Beach, he’s unimpressed.

Pasha’s first impression had been horror. Filth, dreariness, and pigeon shit didn’t bother him, but five gastronoms in a row called Odessa did. His fellow countrymen hadn’t ventured bravely into a new land, they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination, forgetting that the original had come about organically and proceeded to evolve, already markedly different from their poor quality photocopy.

That Pasha. Not down with Brooklyn; totally cool with run-on sentences.

The first half of the book in which Pasha visits America is set in the early 1990s and to a large extent the immigrant community he’s describing in New York doesn’t exist anymore. Those five gastronoms named Odessa are probably still there though now frequented by bearded hipsters instead of judgmental Russian poets. These areas became tourist destinations and then desirable neighborhoods and then too expensive for the people who built them. But the sense of tribalism that drove all of these people into the same neighborhood and inspired their distrust of the country to which they had immigrated is still there, only now manifested as a telephone book rather than 10 city blocks.

Akhtiorskaya’s novel has it all; the parents who dote too much on the child who lives in another country when it’s their more accessible children who have taken care of them, the yearning for the old country, the need to show off the riches of the new country even if as an immigrant they have less than they did before they crossed a border. Maybe this comes from a shared experience as an Eastern European immigrant but this all felt so familiar and true. I don’t know if this book will speak to you like it spoke to me but if there are ration lines in your family history and a bottle of vodka in your freezer then Panic in a Suitcase will read as a totally honest account of the oddity of the immigrant experience in America.




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