“A shame to die,” he sighed, “things are only just beginning to get exciting.”
When Who is Martha? from Ukrainian author, Marjana Gaponenko opens, Professor Emeritus of Zoology, Luka Levadski, at age 96, has just received “a death sentence” of carcinoma of the lung from his doctor. Living alone in Ukraine, in his tiny apartment where he talks to his books and chews over the little future he has left, Levadski decides to decline chemotherapy, “that cocktail of chemicals,” and return to Vienna to a happy time in his youth with memories of eating pastries with his great aunts. In other words Levadski decides to not go out with a whimper but with style while he indulges himself in various luxuries and whoops it up with whatever time he has left. The decision results in him no longer focusing on his disease and imminent death:
The desire to die in luxury he had never lived in spread like wildfire within him. It grew within him and swallowed up his fear of death. The sudden desire for luxury robbed Levadski of any sense of respect for the seriousness of his situation and reduced his lung nibbled by cancer to a mere trifle.
There have been no women in Levadski’s life–just a long, respectable career. Somewhere deep in his past, there’s an ignominious memory which involves a little girl and pastries in Vienna, but on the whole, Levadski, so focused on birds and their mating rituals and habits, just doesn’t understand women.
That he had a long time ago thought of winning over the opposite sex with this pathetic affected behavior, when his head had been filled with nothing but the mating dances and brooding habits of birds, was something he did not want to be reminded about. But he did think about it, he thought about it with a hint of bitterness. After a fulfilling academic life he knew: Women would have interested him more if they hadn’t constantly insisted on emphasizing that they were different from men. If they had been like female birds, a touch grayer and quieter than the males, perhaps they would have awakened his interest at the right time. Levadski would gladly have procreated with such a creature. Only he didn’t know to what purpose.
While the book describes Levadski’s often hilarious misadventures in Vienna, it also goes back into his past, his childhood and his youth. This is a life in which birds were always of paramount importance. At one point, for example, Levadski, a student at the Institute of Zoology in Lemberg, receives a letter from his widowed mother urging him to come home:
My son, something is brewing in this world. The non-migratory birds like the crested lark, wren and the common treecreeper have turned their backs on our little place, the forest and the fields. There is no sign of the house martin either. House sparrows are now nesting under the eaves. I can no longer remember the last time I saw a house martin standing before a puddle, stuffing mud into its cheeks as building material for its nest, it was such a long time ago.
All these signs, my son, as you yourself know, are alarming. Our dear father would have said : the rats are leaving the sinking ship. He would have been right.
Levadski listens to his mother’s warnings of a pending “catastrophe,” and it’s a good thing he did. I loved this section (and the character of Levadski) which illustrated how people, attuned to nature, pick up signals that others are oblivious to. The theme of Levadski’s life spent studying birds continues in his depictions of people he observes in Vienna:
Levadski’s gaze wanders to an inconsolable face. Two strings of pearls entwine the wrinkly neck they belong to. The old woman turns her head like a blue tit, looks around, before she plucks up the confidence to shakily steer the fork with the piece of cake in the direction of her mouth. She protectively holds her other hand beneath it, chews, swallows, and then, with a critical gaze, chin pressed to her chest, she checks whether any of the cake has fallen into her lap, her bosom no longer able to catch crumbs.
While the novel is amusing, and may even seem like a simple story, Who is Martha? raises some relevant questions about life, death, the humiliations and also the compensations of old age. Levadski retired at the age of seventy (twenty-six years earlier) “with the thought that he would not live much longer,” but the story opens with Levadksi at 96, just a few years short of 100. In this life affirming, optimistic, bittersweet story, the message is that we should never give up on life and the experiences offered to us. Levadski, armed with a death sentence, finally feels free to indulge in the luxury he’s always denied himself. It’s sad that Levadski didn’t experience so many things in life until he had that death sentence hanging over his head–at one point, for example, he dares himself to touch a waitress, but we can only cheer him on as he orders a new suit, special shirts, buys a drinking cane full of 2 Star Odessa Cognac, and, with his new credit card, decides to stay in the Hotel Imperial, the “best hotel in town.” The story sags a bit when Levadski gets to Vienna, and I wish he’d crossed a few more of those self-imposed boundaries. This is the sort of story to elicit a range of opinions concerning the limitations we impose upon ourselves and whether or not Levadksi’s latter-day liberation is a cause for celebration or sadness. Perhaps both. Recommended for book clubs as the story is certain to generate discussion from readers.
Review copy. Translated by Arabella Spencer