Alina Bronsky; translated from the German by Tim Mohr
So you live in the northern Ukrainian village of Tschernowo. Your village has been evacuated because of its proximity to the nuclear power plant accident in Chernobyl. In spite of dire warnings from your physician/daughter and government officials, you decide to move back to your village. You prefer to live in your own home in your own village on your own terms and not worry about radioactive contamination. You are a feisty octogenarian, fearless, full of grit, compassionate, kind, fiercely independent, and fiercely determined. Meet the delightful Baba Dunja in Baba Dunja’s Last Love by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr.
Baba Dunja lives in her once abandoned village with a handful of elderly neighbors, all of whom lead quiet, simple lives, unfazed by the radiation that has seeped into their bones or into the contaminated, misshapen fruits and vegetables they grow and consume. They form a small community, isolated from the outside world with occasional visits from reporters or from people in white protective suits who arrive periodically to take samples of insects, vegetables, and bodily fluids from the intrepid residents. The residents’ peaceful existence is temporarily interrupted when a stranger shows up with his young daughter to take up residence.
Into this improbable setting of a radioactive village, Alina Bronsky thrusts a motley crew of unique, quirky characters. There is the terminally ill Petrow who refuses to eat certain foods because they are hazardous to his health; the overweight but beautiful Marja who keeps company with a goat; the doll-like Lenotschka who is quick to smile as she knits her endlessly long scarf; the almost 100-year old Sidorow who proposes marriage to Marja after Baba Dunja declines his overtures; and the Gavrilow couple who keep to themselves.
At the center of it all is their de-facto leader, the endearing Baba Dunja. By choosing to tell the story through the first person point of view of Baba Dunja, Bronsky gives us intimate access to the mind of this feisty, lovable woman. She is strong, resilient, and calmly accepts whatever life throws her way. She has raised two children, survived an abusive and alcoholic husband, been exposed to lethal doses of radiation. Now all she wants is to be left alone to live a humble life in her radioactive village. And no amount of reasoning with her will change her mind.
Baba Dunja exudes wisdom, generosity, and equanimity. Her gentle spirit touches all who come in contact with her. She can sum people up in a few short, pithy sentences and loves them in spite of—or maybe because of—their foibles. The image of this diminutive figure, not more than five feet tall, with her wrinkled face, liver-spotted hands, billowing head scarf, limping slowly back to her home in a virtually abandoned radioactive village is an image not soon to be forgotten.