Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
Have you ever looked around at your life and wondered how you got to where you are now? I never thought I would be the sort of person who owns cutting board wax, but there it is, on my shelf next to some kind of… Arabic drum? And a broken diffuser. My shelf is truly a land of contrasts. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how half the stuff on my shelf got there. Some of it shows where I’ve been in the world, and some of it just shows the trip I made to Festival Foods when I was hungry and bought some kind of Finnish candy I’ll never actually eat. Tani Goldstein, writing under the name Tajo (no last name, like Cher), is a man from presumably any one of the countries not listed below, and he thinks about this question of life trajectories a lot. So a lot, in fact, that he wrote a book about it. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries: A Novel is not a novel, but an aesthetically jumbled collection of artifacts from imagined other lives, much like my shelf.
“My mother would say that I have the mind of a philosopher.”
Tajo begins with a brief introduction about himself, explaining how mediocre and pointless he is. A bold choice, but I respect it. He has apparently worked in PR, retail, and education, and what do you know? Your girl has worked in those fields, so I can confirm they are the most pointless jobs. But he wants to be a journalist! Also, he doesn’t care for screens and doesn’t get FOMO. Just your typical bro, hanging out at Applebee’s, working up the courage to flirt with the waitress. But what if he were an entirely different ordinary person? The nine countries Tajo imagines as his alternate homes are Russia, Japan, America, Greece, Hong Kong, Britain, Jordan, Israel, and India (I know! I was surprised he’s not from India, too). I’m going to walk you through just one of these, Russian Tajo, to see whether the grass is truly greener on the other side.
Our imaginary hero starts out in the closing days of the Soviet Union with a deadbeat German dad who has fine Finnish drinks. Tajo and his mom follow him to a stifling Russian compound in East Berlin, where the boy wonder struggles to fit in at school. He is “dominant among other children,” which I assume is code for being a loser who gets the borscht beat out of him on a regular basis. This is a theme, Tajo being alternately happy and miserable, while having very little agency over the process. Anyway, Dad blasts off with some chick named Tammy, and because he’s a super secret nuclear computer scientist, Mom can’t actually find him. And she’s not supposed to leave the compound anyway, so when she goes out in search of her top-notch husband, she is promptly sent back to Russia.
“I had no worries for the future, and my mother was also not worried about me.”
Tajo grows into a handsome highschooler. Filled with optimism for the country’s future under Perestroika, he turns into an oblivious himbo, merrily humping away at the student body. His girlfriend, considerably less optimistic, insists that all men beat-and-cheat, and he is no exception. Tajo obliges, because I guess you can’t be falsely accused of something if it’s true. This sets off a series of disasters in his life, chief among them being his propensity to wax philosophical about God and the subconscious (seriously, how is this book not Indian?). Other disasters include his time in the army as a “theater officer” (which I assume is part of the Soviet Union’s “pro-bullying” policies), the collapse of said Soviet Union and the ensuing social chaos, and the death of his mother.
Education policy is made using the model of a spherical algebra classroom of uniform density. Basic things like music or drama are never on the mind of reformers and administrators. You see this constantly whenever a school district makes a change to their Covid policy that segregates the grade levels, and only the next day is it brought to their attention that they don’t have the resources for seven orchestras and seven bands. If you’re an arts teacher, you’re lucky they even let you in the building. My point is, I have no faith that any education system is set up to successfully train anyone to be a “military theater officer.”
After deserting the army amid riots and shortages, our hapless handsome hero illegally moves to Germany to start a new life. Money is easier to come by, there are parties and friends to enjoy, and political freedoms undreamed of back home. Tajo is happy again, which means it’s time to go back to carelessly using women. Seriously, you don’t want to meet this guy when he has both feet on the ground. But once he gets kicked back to Russia (again!), he resumes a hardscrabble life as a journalist and meets the love of his life. Unlike him, she is a hard working, altruistic person, and they have two daughters together. The couple barely notices when Putin comes to power.
“My Russian obstinacy defeated my logic: I wasn’t prepared to give up.”
Then the repeating sine wave of Tajo’s life crests and his wife dies. So, for the record, you don’t want to be used by this man, but you also don’t want to be any woman who is a positive part of his life, either. He’s Captain Kirk. Tajo writes a scathing article about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine (that’s the 2015 one, not the 2022 one), gets fired, and goes to work for the white collar mafia. He shacks up with a woman he doesn’t love, and she’s mad because she loves him. I mean, who wouldn’t love this guy who keeps bloviating about how anything exceptional just leads to disappointment? Freedom and love are illusions, insists our broken middle-aged Tajo, and speculating about a happy future is pointless. Hopefully the girls don’t spend too much time at home with their dad.
I’ve become a connoisseur of the Mediocre White Man during my time rummaging through self-published books. The MWM is to be understood as a metaphor; as a literal description it would be very reductive and hurtful, and besides it is in no way limited to white people. Being an MWM is a state of mind, or rather a lack of awareness. Reading this book I felt that Tajo (the author) was curating nine MWM Tajos (the characters) for me, like a menagerie. At times it almost felt like the author was in on the jokes, and at other times it felt painfully sincere, as if these are real insights into the minds of young men tragically carrying unrecognized brilliance with them everywhere they go. It’s the kind of “how many layers am I looking at” piece of fiction that has you squinting at the page, like those second wave feminist books where you can’t quite figure out how intentional the racism is supposed to be. Nevertheless, some people will enjoy the meticulous, clinical breakdown of these nine life trajectories, with their attendant historical details. The research seems pretty good as far as I can tell. The translation by Judith Yakov is smooth and natural, and despite all the times I wanted to smack Tajo in the face, he does have a consistent voice as a character. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries is only a dollar on Kindle, so if you think it might be worth a glance, it probably is.
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