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book review

‘The Invention of Exile’ by Vanessa Manko

ARTHUR E. GIRON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

“They traveled with no documents,” writes Vanessa Manko of Julia and Austin, the central couple in her debut novel, “The Invention of Exile.’’ “By marrying him, Julia was no longer an American citizen. Austin was stateless, but, as far as he was concerned, they were Russian. Only Russia no longer existed. It had been stamped out.’’ Manko’s story follows immigrant Austin from Bridgeport, Conn., in the grip of the Red Scare in the early 1920s, to Russia during its Civil War, to Mexico in the 1940s, with stops in France and Turkey. Rich in history and far-reaching in scope, “The Invention of Exile’’ is an achingly painful and all too relevant meditation on what can happen to identity when human beings are crammed inside an unforgiving container of politics, bureaucracy, and fear.

Austin — born Ustin — Voronkov arrives in Connecticut from Russia in 1913 and finds work at the Remington Arms Co. With a background in engineering, he rises quickly through the ranks. He soon takes up with Julia, the American-born daughter of his landlady, and while they are married in their hearts, they see no need for an official ceremony.

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What follows might read as a comedy of errors, were it not so brutal. Austin is not political “to hear politics . . . was like hearing a dirty word” — but he has a zealous belief in the sanctity of science and reason, and he is suspicious of government. His poor English, combined with his attendance at lectures sponsored by the Union of Russian Workers, causes him to be suspected of anarchism and deported, amid rising fears over communism. Later, in Russia, he is accused of being an American spy. He eventually lands with his family in Mexico, but while Julia and their three children manage to return to the United States in 1934, Austin remains a man without a country, stuck.

In the novel’s dominant thread, which follows Austin in Mexico City in 1948, he has fashioned a provisional life for himself, running a successful repair shop and striking up a romantic friendship with a charming, kind Mexican woman named Anarose. Still, he remains a terribly split and haunted man, desperate to return to his family, whom he has not seen in 14 years. ”They live two lives,” writes Manko of Austin and Julia, who is by then his lawful wife. “The life in their minds, the life at hand.”

Most of Austin’s energy is devoted to inventions — among his projects are a hydro-propeller, an electric welder, a boiler firebox, and sending his plans to the consul general and the US Patent Office as part of his plea for US citizenship. It is to Manko’s credit that for a long time, we are not sure whether we are witnessing a genius or a madman at work, but eventually, it becomes clear that circumstances have brought Austin close to something like insanity. We see him reading the streets, the waiters, the deliverymen with a scrutiny bordering on paranoia, ”on the lookout for the unfamiliar, searching for a pattern, a repetition, some link.” Even more troubling, he is repeatedly “visited” by a man named Jack who, in his knowledge of Austin’s thoughts and actions, is a kind of nightmare phantom bureaucrat, all the more powerful for having been dreamt up by Austin’s spinning mind.

How, stuck in exiled limbo, does one manage to find meaning in daily life, while still attempting to shift one’s circumstances? Fittingly, for a novel, language is one way, though it is shown here to be both a blessing and a curse. The book is filled with postcards and letters sent in an attempt to cross divides, but also with meditations on the maddening necessity of passports, visas, regulatory documents. “Paper,” writes Manko, “is stronger than one realizes.” In 1920s St. Petersburg, Austin’s own voice is described as the enemy — his bourgeois accent could give him away — and throughout, we witness the huge gap between his complex inner life and what he can utter to the world. Still, as the novel progresses, we are allowed to witness some healing, if halting, conversations between Austin and his son and daughter and to feel the tantalizing possibility of change.

Manko’s own prose is largely rich and convincing, though at times the novel could benefit from more restraint (too much white light, too many racing hearts). Better the “sloshing, suckling footsteps,” the plain “pleasure of the silver sheen and scent of spearmint” as Austin unwraps a stick of gum. And while I welcomed the brief crossings into the perspectives of Julia and the couple’s grown children, those sections left me wanting more, particularly from Julia, who remains a bit opaque.

Ultimately, though, this is Austin’s story, dense with his particular lived life and with hard-earned meditations on exile and home, individual agency and political machinery, and the relationship between fantasy and fact. Manko, who drew inspiration for her book from the life of a grandfather she never met, has Austin wonder whether “the actualization of what is longed for can ever match what it is to be just within reach.” In this wonderful first novel, Vanessa Manko gets awfully close.

Elizabeth Graver’s most recent book is “The End of the Point.”
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