Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Good book: Are You Carrying Any Gold or Living Relatives?, by Irene Kampen

One of the perks of selling used books for a living is that sometimes a gem that you wouldn't know to look for crosses your desk, catches your eye, and winds up in the to-read stack.

This is how I can tell you that Are You Carrying Any Gold or Living Relatives?: Through the Soviet Union with Nila, by Irene Kampen (Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York, 1970) somehow manages to be one of the funniest - laugh out loud funny - books I've ever read while simultaneously being more educational than many college courses I took.

I wish somebody would put this one back in print. Used copies are out there, but I want new ones. To give as graduation gifts, amongst other things.

Mrs. Kampen was driving around the Soviet Union in 1969 - when the Soviets were just starting to experiment with turning foreigners loose to drive around on their own, albeit with lots and lots of documents and repeated bureaucratic headaches and hurdles, not to mention Intourist staff who are definitely not on board the project of showing the world how superior the Soviet way of life is.

Mrs. Kampen has as her traveling companion and translator Mrs. Nila Magidoff, formerly of Russia, a survivor of imprisonment and Siberian exile for being an anti-Stalinist. Mrs. Magidoff had gone on to marry an NBC correspondent and become an American citizen, but when the Soviets opened up the country to tourism she was ready for another look at her homeland. Whether the Soviets were ready for her, however, is another question. She is one of the most irrepressible people you will likely meet. Yinga, even. The woman's amazing.

The trip is Mrs. Magidoff's idea, and she talks Mrs. Kampen into it. And the rest is history.

Their adventures and misadventures are both hilarious and scary.

On a side note: After finding firsthand that the realities of life under communist rule were decidedly not stellar, much less as advertised, the ladies wound up toward the end of their journey at a posh resort for Communist bigwigs and foreigners, where they were talked down to by an American professor on sabbatical from The New School. The professor thought we had a lot to learn from the Russians, but didn't want to hear anything good said out loud about America. (Sigh.) Nila gives him what-for, for all the good it does, and launches a spirited defense of America, for all the good that does, at least with Mr.-Know-It-All, who's only been hobnobbing with the elites. (Another sigh.) Some things have not noticeably changed for the better in three and a half decades, in other words.

On another side note: At one point, Mrs. Kampen got arrested for driving a dirty car. So I guess that way of fleecing the public and giving officers a handy excuse for pulling people over isn't anything new, either.

Her visit with the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times is also very interesting, I think. He takes her to visit a state-run kindergarten, where...

No, on second thought, I won't discuss the visit to the kindergarten just yet, not until some of you have had a chance to read this. I'd like to know what you think. I was moved to tears, but maybe that's just me.

Mrs. Kampen is prone to popping tranquilizers, at least as a figure of speech. (Surely she didn't take as many as she mentioned?) She's also fond of Vodka. So if you insist upon squeaky clean heroines, she isn't that. But she's marvelous all the same, in my opinion. And in this book she keeps it witty, clean, and intelligent; things sorely lacking in many of the more recent travel books.

The book's title, by the way - you weren't wondering about it, were you? nah, really? - is from questions encountered while going through customs: "Are you carrying any gold, silver, jewelry or living relatives into the Soviet Union?"

No, really. She gets asked the same thing on her way out. As if she might have Cousin Masha in her garment bag.

I'm fond of being an armchair tourist, especially if the travel comes with good laughs. This book has the added benefit of having great portrayals of a wide variety of people and circumstances: from the man who offers to give them directions to their hotel but takes them to his apartment instead so his seven-year-old son can meet Americans, to "Cousin Masha" - a distant relative's sister's oldest grandchild, if I have that straight - who, after hanging up and hanging up and hanging up on Mrs. Kampen, afraid to talk to a stranger on the telephone, does an abrupt about-face upon realizing that there is a distant relationship, and invites Mrs. Kampen to her son's wedding. Cousin Masha, we come to find out, is one of the women for whom mother-in-law jokes were invented.

There are also some funny stories involving Bloomingdale's, for what that's worth.

I don't want to oversell this book. It's at heart a tale of a couple of feisty, intelligent, well-educated, basically good-humored, middle-aged ladies going on a trip in a country not used to tourists, a country so bureaucratized that getting anything done is always an effort and often a farce. I found it a great read, but I'm well aware it won't be everyone's cup of tea, or, more precisely, everyone's brand of humor. On the other hand, now that I've read it I have this incredible urge to give copies to people...starting with a certain uncle, who leans toward The New School's professor in his worldview...

Nila Magidoff was apparently pretty active on the lecture circuit. Did anyone reading this ever hear her speak? Was she as lively in person as she appears to be on the page?

Has anyone read the book Nila, which recounts her earlier experiences in Russia? What did you think of it? (I haven't seen a copy yet.)


Bookworm said...

It sounds like a wonderful book.

Travel in totalitarian countries can be both funny, because life is so abnormal, and scary, because of the continued police presence. Many moons ago, when Czechoslovakia was still Communist, I was in a car that made a turn onto a closed street. We were instantly stopped by the police who took our passport -- which was very scary. Not speaking a word of Czech, all we could do was repeatedly state our ultimate destination -- Brun, on the way to Austria. The policemen conferred, which was also scary, and then suddenly handed us our passports and motioned us to follow. We did, and those men got us safely out of Prague and on the road to freedom in Austria.

johng said...

You may have joined the ruckus at Powerline about what are the 'great American novels.' A fun idea.

I find that I have been much more influenced by the 'not great' which have crossed my path in a way you describe.

I like to think that many people buy for home reading and hold the books that mean the most to them (as I do). Often their estates offer these loved items for a song. As a used book buyer, they end up in my hands (and sometimes, heart). It's a gift from one mind to another, unknown to the giver, but still received gratefully by the blessed recipient.

A decade ago I acquired an 1898 volume entitled (as I remember) 'England Within and Without.' It consisted of essays written by an American visitor (a magazine writer) to that country. A vanished time, yes, and yet for those who want to travel in time, as you have with your marvelous find, a way to see the world as if it were outside your railway window now.

Nila A. said...

I was named after her, she was as she used to say, "my ersatz grandmother". She was as spirted in person as in the book and the other book, "Nila" is a less-humourous, but still spirited biography.