CALLING UKRAINE, by Johannes Lichtman
The novel of the American abroad constitutes its own literary genre, presided over by the ghosts of Melville (the high seas) and Henry James (European high society). With sailors in diminishing demand, trips have more recently been funded by Fulbright grants or the Peace Corps, or with the help of a short-term job teaching English. At their best, novels of international visitors defamiliarize cultural practices, identities and language itself on both sides: English sounds different after a long sojourn in another tongue.
But like travel writing, these novels risk an updated Orientalism, inviting the reader to marvel with the naïve narrator at a superficial, exoticized rendering of a foreign culture. Such works are too often about the protagonist’s Bildung at the expense of all else, with the locals — in particular, the beautiful and remarkably understanding, intelligent and/or tragic women with whom the protagonist so often falls in love — treated as props that dematerialize as soon as the narrator boards a plane home. Perhaps deterred by these potential pitfalls (or by mounting student debt), many of the youngest new novelists have skipped the high seas and leaned into Bartleby, writing funny, grim novels about dead-end office jobs and late capitalist anomie.
In “Calling Ukraine,”the Swedish AmericanJohannes Lichtman combines these two genres, telling the story of a young American who, after a breakup and the death of his dad, moves to Lutsk in 2018 to run a call center for an Airbnb-like start-up. (In his acknowledgments, Lichtman thanks his partner, who brought him with her to Ukraine when she received a Fulbright grant.) This blend allows for a journey of self-discovery, some mild criticism of global capitalism and a cross-cultural collision, all in a single book.
Lichtman’s first novel, the well-received “Such Good Work,”was about a young, newly sober Swedish American writer who moves to Malmo, Sweden, to avoid drugs, and attempts to redeem himself by volunteering to help refugees. In “Calling Ukraine,” the hero, a recovering journalist, is upfront about his quest for content.
When the narrator struggles to figure out how to buy lunch in Kyiv, he calms himself “with the knowledge that this could all be material.” When he decides to take a year off dating, it’s not only because he’s keen to avoid falling into the stereotypical role of the American sexpat in Ukraine: “Being abstinent at home would have felt kind of pathetic, but doing it abroad made it more like a journey of personal discovery — something you might pitch as a long-form article or even a book one day.” Here and elsewhere, I found myself joining Natalia, a call-center worker and the narrator’s witty, understanding, “slim without being bony” love interest, in wondering whether he was joking.
Still, Lichtman’s light touch is a welcome reminder of the humor and wit that, as he points out in a preface written after Russia’s invasion last year, pervades Ukrainian culture even now. (There’s a reason they elected a comedian president.) He presents an amusing picture of Ukrainian customer service representatives trying to master the art of American small talk: “How old are you? You have children? Why not?”
But his brief reflections on Ukrainian history and politics are as dutiful as asides in a Lonely Planet guide. A pivotal scene depends on an implausible confusion of two Ukrainian phrases (sex in Ukrainian is still seks, after all), and a lurid turn in the second half of the novel has a clear satirical logic but heightens the sense that the Ukrainian characters are only plot devices, though they’re drawn with sympathy. For me, the most engaging chapters were the two written from their perspectives. Perhaps one day we can read Natalia’s novel — or long-form article — about her encounter with an American call-center manager.
Sophie Pinkham, the author of “Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine,” is working on a cultural history of the Russian forest.
CALLING UKRAINE | By Johannes Lichtman | 226 pp. | Marysue Rucci Books | $26