Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko

“A shame to die,” he sighed, “things are only just beginning to get exciting.”

who is marthaWhen 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

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gaponeko MaraJana

15 responses to “Who is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko

  1. What an interesting mind that quote about women and birds shows, and the letter from his mother. I really like this authorial voice.

  2. I really liked it too–the idea of this elderly gentleman buying clothes he would never have spent the money on and taking off to live whatever time he has left. The story fell a bit flat (I thought) once he was in Vienna, but then the beginning was very good indeed. Anyway, there’s a lot going on in this short novel.
    I identified with the character in some ways as I tend to see the world through tortoises.

  3. I love the idea of this man heading off to Vienna to recapture a life of little luxuries. Great quotes, especially the one in which the old lady turns her head like a blue tit.

  4. I really like the quotes. And second chances/new opportunities – no matter at what age – are irresistible. But I wonder if he would have undergone chemo at a younger age.

  5. You really have knack of finding great books.

    It reminds me of Charming Mass Suicide by Paasilinna: as soon as they’ve decided to commit suicide, they have nothing to lose and they enjoy life. The paradox of the human mind.

  6. That second quote sounds terribly sad. In a sense I suppose every 96 year old (and in a very different sense timewise every 26 year old) is under a sentence of death. At 96 you may not know as he does quite how soon your end will be, but you probably have a fair guess that it won’t be too long whatever happens, sadly.

    The sags a bit comment is a little offputting.

    I suspect there are few books that aren’t funnier than Berlin Alexanderplatz, much as I like it. It’s not a laugh a minute by any means, or even a laugh an hour…

    • I know someone whose very elderly grandparent worries about being found dead in underwear that isn’t fresh. I wonder if you worry every day and wonder if it’s your last. I suppose it depends on the sort of person you are.

      I’ll read Berlin Alexanderplatz one of these days.

  7. Oop, forgot to tick to be notified of new comments.

  8. mytwostotinki

    Very interesting review. It was mentioned before: this could have been a depressing read, considering what is it about. But after having read the book twice, I can only say that I rarely came across such an entertaining and well-written novel in the last years. Funny that I used exactly the same quote about women and birds in my own review (not having read yours at that time – but it is really central to the book and the understanding of Luka Levadski.) In case you are interested: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=969

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