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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

A Biography of a Chance Miracle

by
Tanja Maljartschuk


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Biography of a Chance Miracle



Title: A Biography of a Chance Miracle
Author: Tanja Maljartschuk
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 234 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: A Biography of a Chance Miracle - US
A Biography of a Chance Miracle - UK
A Biography of a Chance Miracle - Canada
A Biography of a Chance Miracle - India
Biografie eines zufälligen Wunders - Deutschland
  • Ukrainian title: Біографія випадкового чуда
  • Translated by Zenia Tompkins

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Our Assessment:

B : rough around the edges, but mostly quite winning

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 26/9/2013 Sabine Berking


  From the Reviews:
  • "Es ist ein ebenso wunderbares wie bitteres Buch, eine schreiende Anklage in Prosa im Stile von Saltykow-Schtschedrin, dem großen russischen Satiriker des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Wodka, so erklärt ein Mafia-Boss weise, trinke man nicht, weil er da ist, sondern weil nichts anderes da ist. Über diese Tristesse erhebt sich Lena, ein weiblicher Don Quichotte der Erniedrigten und Beleidigten, wie ein schwebender Chagallscher Engel." - Sabine Berking, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Biography of a Chance Miracle amounts to a biography of Lena (who insists on that name, rather than the Ukrainian variants everyone wants to impose on her, Olena or Olenka), who grows up, and struggles, in the newly independent Ukraine. The narrator only reveals herself very late in the novel, but her account is closely based on Lena's own memories -- though she also includes some bits and pieces that Lena remains unaware of and unfamiliar with, to round out the account.
       Above all else, Lena is obstinate, from early childhood on. She has strong opinions, and a clear sense of right and wrong, and doesn't necessarily think of possible consequences as she plows ahead. In childhood and youth, these set her somewhat apart, but don't seem particularly atypical. When she can't get into any of the university departments she hopes to study at -- philosophy being her top choice -- but rather winds up in the dreaded physical education department (and even that only thanks to a bribe), it's clear her adult life won't shape up much different. She eventually does find a variety of causes, which she throws herself wholeheartedly and, occasionally, even quite successfully into, notably "canine homelessness" (as she is horrified to find out how the stray pet population in her hometown is being dealt with) and then the treatment of the disabled, specifically as it pertains to a childhood friend of hers whom she makes it her mission to help.
       Lena wants to be a savior -- not of the world, as she realistically understands that there's only so much one can do, but at least in some small ways. Among her more harebrained ideas is that of selling miracles -- she's confident enough in her abilities to see herself as a miracle-worker -- but in modern-day Ukraine no one even believes in miracles any longer (though they're gullible about all sorts of other quackery, as Lena discovers) and she can't find any takers.
       Lena does have some ambition:

She simply wanted to be someone, someone specific -- not very great, but not small either -- and she wanted to do something.
       If something of an innocent in the ways of the world (or at least this Ukrainian world), she's not entirely guileless. And, as she explains to her college roommate:
     "I always wanted to help people."
     "You don't want to help them ! You want to swindle them !"
     "You're right -- swindle them in order to help them. That's my goal !"
       Lena is certain she knows what's best and right, and storms ahead trying to convince everyone else of it. She meets with some success -- her dog campaign gets lots of attention and makes her a minor celebrity -- but also comes up against bureaucracy and the powers that be that are almost impossible to truly conquer.
       From early on, Lena also wants to escape, with ambitions of getting to America. Or out of the Ukraine, at least. She can't help herself, however, and the pull of everything that needs to be done back home keeps her from making good her escape -- even when, at one point, she's practically on the bus that could get her out of this sinkhole.
       The backdrop to this all is, of course, the newly independent Ukraine Lena grows up and lives in. Others -- like her parents -- still remember previous, older eras, Soviet or even Habsburg times; for Lena: "There was just this one". She lives in a small Ukrainian city called San Francisco, and the novel follows its transformations in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union, from her parents losing their jobs and trying to find new ways of making do (a buckwheat farm is one almost inspired plan they go all-in on, falling only ever so slightly (yet still catastrophically) short of making a success of it) to the shifting commercial sphere:
     In 1996, everything definitely went to pieces and San Francisco sank into the black waters of the free market.
       From modern-day bureaucracy to Ukrainian nationalism, racism, and corruption, A Biography of a Chance Miracle covers a great deal, maintaining a light-hearted tone -- not defeatist, but stoical, with Lena's outbursts of action standing in effective contrast to the general attitude.
       In its somewhat anecdotal presentation, A Biography of a Chance Miracle doesn't quite have the flow of a usual life-progression-story; a few too many threads dangle too loosely, including Lena's parents who pop up and out throughout the story. There are connections -- even from the near stand-alone opening spectacular (Lena's teacher making a memorable exit) --, and the idea of a flying miracle-worker, whose existence Lena firmly believes in, despite its unlikeliness, that repeatedly crops up helps bring the story to a nice close, but there's perhaps a bit too much of the episodic adventure-story to the novel as a whole.
       A Biography of a Chance Miracle isn't quite a picaresque -- Lena is too (if not entirely ...) harmlessly innocent for that --, nor is she entirely quixotic. Maljartschuk spells out the closest parallel, when the narrator describes first meeting Lena:
     The first thing that Lena said to me was, "If Schneider himself were to come from Switzerland now to have a look at his former pupil and patient, then even he would wave his hand dismissively and say, 'Idiot !'"
     What that was supposed to mean, I don't know. Presumably it was some quote, but I still haven't been able to figure out from where.
       (Maljartschuk announcing it and spelling it out so loudly like this is an example of how she doesn't quite trust her writing, or the reader, enough; a bit more subtlety would have served her well throughout the book.)
       Lena isn't quite Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin either, but her story does resemble his in significant ways, and she is a similarly engaging, hopeless character.
       A Biography of a Chance Miracle is an appealing take on modern-day Ukraine, and a nice little life-of tale. A bit rough in some of the presentation and writing, it's still a vivid and entertaining story, with just enough poignancy to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 June 2018

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Links:

A Biography of a Chance Miracle: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Tanja Maljartschuk (Таня Малярчу́к) was born in 1983.

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© 2018 the complete review

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