Baba Dunja’s Last Love
Government warnings about radiation levels in her hometown (a stone’s throw from Chernobyl) be damned! Baba Dunja is going home. And she’s taking a motley bunch of her former neighbors with her. With strangely misshapen forest fruits to spare and the town largely to themselves, they have pretty much everything they need and they plan to start anew.
The terminally ill Petrov passes the time reading love poems in his hammock; Marja takes up with the almost 100-year-old Sidorow; Baba Dunja whiles away her days writing letters to her daughter. Life is beautiful. That is until one day a stranger turns up in the village and once again the little idyllic settlement faces annihilation.
From the prodigiously talented Alina Bronsky, this is a return to the iron-willed and infuriatingly misguided older female protagonist that she made famous with her unforgettable Russian matriarch, Rosa Achmetowna, in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. Here she tells the story of a post-meltdown settlement, and of an unusual woman, Baba Dunja, who, late in life, finds her version of paradise.
Comments from the judges
Voice and character drive a story told with compelling simplicity, in this tale of one women’s quest to reconcile her past. An unusual novel in all the best ways, a mere 192 pages that sparkle with allure, Bronsky builds a cast of vivacious, memorable characters, all brilliant in their own right, to orbit their star, Baba Dunja. Bronsky’ protagonist leaps from the page and into our hearts. Baba’s in her twilight years but age hasn’t lessened her wit, sass, or her impatience for fools, whom she weathers with a resilience you’d only expect from a women who’s risked everything to return, to hometown Tschernowo – Chernobyl. As one of only two residents who lived in the city before the disaster, Baba has an elder stateswoman’s status among the remaining threadbare community – Marja and her annoying pet rooster Konstantin; Petrov, the terminally ill poetry lover, among a scattering of others. Over half of the houses remain empty, and those that live in the neighbouring city of Malyschi shun the town and it’s people, fearing they too might be contaminated by radiation. Even Baba’s own daughter, Irinia, now a doctor in Germany, and a granddaughter Baba has yet to meet are fearful of the ‘death zone’, as Irinia calls it. And yet one day a man arrives with his young daughter, wanting to move into an unoccupied house. Of course, as is often the case, Baba’s life is changed forever.
Humorous and unpredictable, with a sense of place that makes the death zone as real as the streets outside our windows, Baba Dunja’s Last Love is novel to be devoured hungrily – it really is that good. Tim’s Mohr’s translation is assured and unobtrusive; a gift to a writer for whom short, sharp sentences are her stock in trade. Bronsky writes with an eye for the unbearable aspects of life, in hope of helping us understand that although they cause pain, but we can live through them. In doing so, she’s crafted a rich work, much greater than the sum of its limited pages. As Baba Dunja says, ‘You can’t blame the radiation for every stupid thing in the world.’