Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184
Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan tells the story of Misha Vainburg. Misha is obese, a secular Jew, and he is the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. When Absurdistan begins, Misha is at the end of a long journey that began with his return to Russia from New York. He is desperate to go back to New York both to be in the city he loves and to be with the woman he loves. However, Misha’s quest to return to New York ultimately takes him to Absurdistan, a fictional country near the Caspian Sea.
Misha cannot return to New York because his “Beloved Papa,” Boris Vainberg, was a Russian gangster. After Boris killed Roger Daltrey of Oklahoma, the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to issue Misha further visas. Misha is stuck in St. Petersburg, where he leads a melancholy life of gluttonous excess. Misha spends most of his time rapping with his friend Alyosha-Bob; calling his psychiatrist Dr. Levine; and throwing shoes at Timofey, his manservant. He also spends a great deal of time writing e-mails to Rouenna Sales, his long-distance girlfriend.
Rouenna and Misha met while he was in America studying multiculturalism. Misha, or “Snack Daddy,” as his college friends called him, quickly became a memorable attendee of parties. Misha and Rouenna met at a topless bar. After comparing their breasts, they returned to Misha’s apartment. Whenever Misha is with women, he worries about their response to his penis, which was mangled during his circumcision at the age of 18. Misha underwent the procedure at his father’s request, though he blames the Hasid Jews who carried out the surgery. However, Rouenna responds tenderly and the two start a relationship.
Misha’s relationship with his father is less straightforward, and unfortunately it is unlikely to find resolution since Boris Vainburg has been murdered by one of his rivals. Now Misha begins to find that he has more responsibilities than he realized. He settles with his father’s murderer. He also sleeps with his father’s wife, who is actually younger than Misha is. Finally, Misha determines to start an organization called Misha’s Children so he can do good in the world. However, Misha’s enduring passion is to return to New York.
Even though Boris Vainberg has been killed, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will still not allow Misha entry into America. However, Misha learns that he might be able to get a fake Belgian passport. He demands passports for both himself and Timofey. Once the deal is agreed upon, Misha boards a flight that takes him to Austria and then to Absurdistan. Misha flies first class but leaves to sit in coach when a flight attendant refuses to respond to Misha’s complaints about a fellow first-class passenger who is a Hasid Jew.
Things do not get much easier for Misha upon his arrival in Absurdistan. Shteyngart explains that Absurdistan is located near Turkey, Russia, the Caspian Sea, and Iran. It is an oil-rich country that is described as the “Norway of the Caspian.” Its population is divided between the Sevo and the Svanï, and Misha learns that the two groups part ways over Jesus’s response to the Good Thief during their crucifixion. This dispute is represented in the way that they represent the “footrest” of the Orthodox cross: does it tilt toward the Good Thief or away from him? However, although Misha has a passion for multiculturalism, he is not very interested in the differences between the Sevo and the Svanï.
Upon arriving in Absurdistan, Misha is approached by several men. Each informs Misha that their country has a close relationship with Jews and Israel; they go so far as claim that “my mother is your mother.” However, each of them informs Misha that their shared mother is very sick, and would Misha please part with a hundred dollars to help her? Misha goes through this process three times before one of the men recognizes that Misha is the son of Boris Vainberg. It seems that Boris was well known in Absurdistan and that he once famously sold a screw to Halliburton, which the locals call “Golly Burton.” Everyone knows that Boris has been killed and even that Misha has slept with his stepmother.
Meanwhile, Misha learns that Rouenna has entered into a new relationship with Jerry Shteynfarb. Like the author of Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart, Shteynfarb is an immigrant in New York who is of Russian Jewish descent. Shteynfarb also happens to have been one of Misha’s rivals in college. However, he has now become moderately famous as a writer. Rouenna informs Misha that she has learned from Shteynfarb that Misha has been condescending to her and that she wants to become a writer to express herself in Shteynfarb’s upcoming anthology. In the meantime, she hopes Misha will continue to pay for her university tuition.
Although Misha’s relationship with Rouenna appears to be over, he still wants to return to America. Misha obtains a Belgian passport from a corrupt official and is ready to leave Absurdistan when fighting breaks out. A minister is murdered, the airport is shut down, and Misha is stuck in a hotel room in Absurdistan. Misha and Alyosha-Bob try to board an American plane using Misha’s Belgian passport, but their plan fails when an official recognizes Misha. Alyosha-Bob manages to leave, and Misha is on his own for the first time.
Soon after, Misha begins a new relationship with Nana Nanabragov. Nana’s father is a man of influence in Absurdistan, and he welcomes Misha into the family. Soon after, Misha is offered a ministerial position, and Misha elects to become the Minister of Multiculturalism. His first proposal is to create a museum about the Caspian Holocaust. However, it soon turns out that everything that Mr. Nanabragov has told Misha is a lie.
In fact, a great deal of Absurdistan is a lie. There is hardly any oil left. The American oil companies were fooled into investing there and are now pulling out. Nanabragov has entered into an agreement with Golly Burton. They have staged a military coup in the hopes of attracting American attention. This would invite the Americans to move troops into Absurdistan to rebuild the country, but unfortunately the international media has not picked up the story because Americans cannot locate Absurdistan on a map.
Misha has been duped. He and Nana attempt to leave Absurdistan by train. However, Misha learns that Mr. Nanabragov has made plans to kill him for stealing Nana away. So Misha and Timofey leave the train and enter a village of Mountain Jews. Once more, Misha finds his father’s legacy in the form of a sculpted plaque. It contains a quotation from Boris: “by any means necessary.” Misha, who has been trapped in Absurdistan and used by everyone around him, takes his manservant, his Belgian passport, and his laptop north toward Russia. He writes to Rouenna, who is now pregnant and abandoned by Shteynfarb, that he will attempt to return to New York however he can. Unfortunately, it is September 11, 2001.
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