SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
By Katherine Shonk

The Moscow Times, Russia
May 26 2006

In DBC Pierre's latest novel, a pair of newly unconjoined twins in
London and a young woman fleeing the war-torn Caucasus find themselves
similarly unversed in the ways of the world.

A pair of newly unconjoined twins, set loose in London, must decide
whether to embrace freedom or remain within their safe, familiar
cocoon.

A young woman from a war-torn republic in the Caucasus leaves home
in search of a better future for herself and her family.

These are the two storylines that DBC Pierre launches in alternating
and eventually intersecting chapters in his second novel, "Ludmila's
Broken English." (His first, "Vernon God Little," won Britain's
prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2003.) Though they inhabit very
different corners of the globe, twin brothers Blair and Gordon "Bunny"
Heath and Ludmila Derev face a similar challenge -- the need to adapt
to an alien environment -- and are similarly ill-equipped to face
the adventures that will befall them.

Blair and Bunny, born attached at the trunk, are lifelong wards of
Britain, sequestered in the Albion House Institution, a "centuries-old
jumble of menacing architectures crouched deep in the northern
countryside." Acting on the theory that Bunny has become Blair's
parasite, the British health service, "newly privatised" in the
novel's slightly futuristic setting, arranges for the brothers to
be surgically extricated from each other at the age of 33. Once they
have recovered, they are dispatched for four weeks' community leave
in the bustling capital.

Meanwhile, in the fictitious post-Soviet backwater of Ublilsk
Administrative District Forty-One, Ludmila and the rest of her family
find themselves similarly cut adrift by a formerly paternalistic
state. Farcically, the Soviet Union abdicated its responsibility
for the Derevs' well-being to the drunken, incestuous head of the
household. Just pages into the novel, Ludmila's grandfather attacks
her, leaving her with a sobering choice. "The equation was suddenly
this: if Aleksandr sodomised her, he would more quickly be persuaded
to sign his pension voucher, and bread would appear on the family
table that night. ... And if she wet the air with lusty squeaks,
there might even be orange Fanta." Soon after accidentally killing
Grandpa by stuffing a glove in his mouth, the young heroine confronts
another crude Catch-22: Her grandmother advises her to make up for
the deceased's pension by choosing between prostitution and work in
the munitions plant. Ludmila lucks out only when the family realizes
that the sale of their tractor might temporarily stave off the wolves
at the door.

So the novel's three protagonists set forth on what might have been
a collision course, if only it didn't take such a very long time for
their paths to cross. Blair leaves the institution without looking
back, eager to plunge into the sex, hedonism and sheer normality
he has been denied. Asexual Bunny would just as soon cower through
the month of freedom, eating bacon and sipping gin. Ludmila, after
killing a second man (the tractor's buyer) for untoward advances,
has the most ambitious plan. She heads to neighboring Kuzhnisk to meet
up with boyfriend Misha, a deserting soldier from the local conflict.

Together they intend to travel overseas and join the ranks of those
who "wouldn't tolerate the inconvenience of war in the place where
they lived."

"Ludmila's Broken English" begins boldly, perhaps too boldly; played
for laughs, the passage in which Ludmila kills her lustful grandfather
is liable to lose a few faint-hearted readers. Subsequent chapters,
in which Blair and Bunny quibble endlessly over the possibilities
afforded by their liberation, are likely to turn off even more, due
to tedium and, for non-Brits at least, an excess of slang and inside
jokes. Which is a shame because, after this uneven start, passages of
brilliance lie nestled within the novel's dense, darkly comedic middle.

Most successful is Pierre's cutting portrayal of Ublilsk, a
civilization in rapid decline. The novelist researched this portion
of his book by visiting Armenia and frequenting Russian-bride web
sites, and he fixes a keen eye on the degradation and desperation
that can exist in forgotten pockets of the world. This description
of the region's bread delivery echoes the matter-of-fact bleakness
of Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

"As keeper of the bread depot, the last registered business of any kind
in the district, Lubov's power was absolute. The depot was a mildewed
cockpit from which she piloted the destinies of the district's last
mollusc-like inhabitants. Every week, a forlorn box-car was uncoupled
from a train on the main line, and pushed on to a disused siding that
ran to within four kilometres of Ublilsk. ...

Oafish young men met the wagon each week, carrying metal bars and
sharpened chains for security. Rumour had it they now also carried a
gun. They were Lubov's retarded son and nephew -- for the stigma of
feeble blood twice stained her -- and they would heave and pull the
wagon as far as the track would allow, then unload the bread into
sacks, and carry it over their backs to the depot. ... The town had
several simple faces rumoured to be the cost of a dirty loaf."

Eamonn McCabe

DBC Pierre received Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize for his
first novel, "Vernon God Little," in 2003.

Even more vivid is Ubli, the tongue Pierre gifts his characters,
"said to be the language most exquisitely tailored to the expression
of disdain." The Ublis' dialogue is presented as word-for-word
translation, a technique that at first feels stilted. But once the
reader acclimates to common Ubli turns of phrase such as "gather
your cuckoos," "don't toss gas," "cut your hatch," and the ubiquitous
"Hoh!" it becomes delightfully daffy, as does the natives' constant
pushing of their chins at anyone who gets the slightest bit on
their nerves. In Ublilsk, contempt is the local currency; beyond the
district's borders, its expression is the only source of power.

"Imagine!" Ludmila scolds a sweet young woman who attempts to befriend
her in Kuzhnisk. "A new and important visitor and you waste the
crucial first hour, the golden hour, with squeakings about yourself!"

Ludmila's unwavering crabbiness lends the story some inspired humor;
unfortunately, it stands in the way of her development as a fully
rounded character. When a crooked Kuzhnisk biznesmen signs her up on an
"Internet introduction service," it's clearly time to start worrying,
but the girl's tough exterior impenetrably lacquers over her underlying
pathos and naivete. The story of what happens when conjoined twins
are separated and cut loose in society should also set the stage
for compelling drama, but the brothers remain too rigidly defined --
Blair is the wild one, Bunny the priss -- to retain much interest. And
Pierre's failure to recount the specifics of their separation --
we are told that they "shared certain organs," but not how they are
divided up on the operating table, or how the twins are (or are not)
physically altered by the procedure -- seems an odd oversight for an
otherwise scatological writer.

When the twins do finally meet up with Ludmila (yes, the introduction
web site plays a role), the results are unsatisfyingly brief. Nearly
all of the novel's major characters converge in Ublilsk for a gruesome
finale that seems to want to be chilling, but instead comes off
feeling flat, even predictable.

Still, those who like their literature in the grotesque vein of
William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor will appreciate Pierre's
transplantation of the tradition to a very different southern clime.

The Caucasus is unexplored territory in contemporary English-language
fiction, and in many sections of "Ludmila's Broken English," Pierre
does an admirable job of introducing a new audience to the apparent
horror and black humor to be found there.

Katherine Shonk is the author of "The Red Passport," a collection of
short stories set in contemporary Russia.