When you read enthralling books, there is always this moment when the novel is no longer just a novel. Take for example reading on a train: you look up in amazement to notice that you just missed the stop where you should have alighted. Not because you forgot the correct stop. On the contrary, you forgot that you were on the train in the first place. Because in the novel the protagonist and the reader are in a totally different place. Generally, novels like these enjoy the reputation that the writer transports a reader to a different world.
Lana Lux’s novel Kukolka transports the reader to a world that he/she would dearly like to escape again after the opening pages. Then the feeling continues for almost 400 pages, when one trembles with Samira who equally strives in these pages to find a way out in desperation, with grit and at times even confusion. One would like, together with Samira, to evade her fate or what the girl must get to know as life. Because at the start of the story Samira is young – and even at the end, she is only fifteen, though she looks like eighteen and has gone through more than most of us in a lifetime. Because at the outset Samira is only a small, five-year-old girl with big brown eyes, and you still don’t trust her to escape alone, you would like nothing better than to tear her away from this life, from these pages. You would like to seize her and put her in a different reality, a world in which the UN conventions on children’s rights mean something. These grand ideas occur to you with this novel, although you have only finished reading the opening pages.
The story begins when Samira’s memory awakens: she is aged five. She grows up in a Ukrainian orphanage. She has dark eyes, dark hair and darker skin than the other children, so she is called a gypsy, although she has no idea what that means. This cannot mean anything good, which is more an intuition than knowledge, and it will probably have something to do with her parents, yet Samira doesn’t know how because she believes that she never had any parents. Life in a Ukrainian orphanage is so dismal and devoid of hope – it is measured in beatings and punishments instead of hours. Samira is five years old and Lana Lux has this skill of gifting us the world of a five-year-old. This familiar term – seeing the world through a child’s eyes – is often a stumbling block for novels because it is the adults who write the narratives. As adults, we recall individual feelings from childhood, but we no longer know how it is to climb onto a chair to reach a light switch and to find explanations for and orientation in the world. That defines this novel’s strength: Lana Lux has not lost this childhood perspective. She sees the world through Samira’s eyes, while she tries to make sense of this world, devising childish fantasies when she receives no explanations and accepting as truth whatever is presented to her as true.
On the last Saturday of each month, the orphanage is visited by couples who are interested in adoption. The children are smartened up – you could say they are propped up – and made to stand upright in rows and circles. They should present their best side. They are not yet aware that their dignity will be stolen, but they know that when these couples disappear again they will take hope and dreams with them. On one of these Saturdays, Samira’s best and only friend is chosen; she is adopted by a German couple. “He smelled of soap and mint and perfume. He smelled rich”, writes Lana Lux and reveals Samira’s opinion of Germans. This is one of these sentences which make the novel so special: they are short, but they speak volumes and much more. The couple departs with Samira’s best friend who leaves her a treasure and a dream. From now on both things will accompany Samira through the hell which she calls life: a Barbie doll. And besides that, a letter, which contains a promise from her best friend, that her new parents will also certainly adopt Samira. Samira’s dream is called: Germany.
With the dream in mind, Samira escapes from the orphanage and is picked up on the street by Rocky who coaxes her with the thought of this dream. If she goes begging for him, he promises that he would – in return for food and shelter – save money, so she has enough for a ticket to Germany. Samira learns from Rocky how to beg, steal and cook and so much more that a child shouldn’t know: what dependence is, drugs, an abortion and death. In abrupt, and therefore so harrowing descriptions Lana Lux lets Samira grow up – now she is hurriedly renamed “Kukolka” by Rocky, or “little doll”. The author never pleads too much for pity which is why the tears well up as one reads. The little doll is twelve years old when she thinks that she has met her great love: a young pimp who first sets the world at her feet and even fulfils the biggest of her dreams: namely, taking her with him to Germany. Here, he makes a fast deal and she is sold to punters and turned into a drug addict. At the latest, at this point the reader has lost any belief in a happy ending.
The novel has also become a report: a record of a world that we prefer to shut our eyes to. Girls in our cities also go through everything that Samira had to endure. They rot in this life. In the end, Lana Lux gives Samira a chance to escape the cruelty. The reader is exceptionally grateful to her, perhaps gladly closing his or her eyes again. Because the real-life story, unfortunately, usually turns out differently.
By Lena Gorelik
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright