Gary Shteyngart has an enjoyable essay in The Threepenny Review called “Mother Tongue,” about his attachment to his native Russian and the slow process by which he took up English while living in a house “Russian down to the last buckwheat kernel of kasha.”
Vladimir Girshkin, the struggling young immigrant hero of my first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, shares a few characteristics with me, notably his penchant for counting money in Russian, which, according to the book, is “the language of longing, of homeland and Mother, his money-counting language.” And also, I might add, the language of fear. When the ATM coughs outs a bushel of cash or I am trying to perform a magic trick with my checkbook, trying to glean something from nothing, I leave English behind. American dollars, the lack of which constitutes an immigrant’s most elemental fright, are denominated entirely in the Russian language. And so with shaking hands, the fictional Vladimir Girshkin and the all-too-real Gary Shteyngart count a short stack of greenbacks, a record of our worth and accomplishment in our adopted land: “Vosemdesyat dollarov…Sto dollarov…Sto-dvadtsat’ dollarov…”
Many of my dreams are also dreamt in Russian, especially those infused with terror. There’s one, for instance, where I emerge into a sepia-toned Manhattan, its skyscrapers covered by the chitinous shells of massive insects with water-bug antennae waving menacingly from their roofs. “What has happened?” I ask an unmistakably American passer-by, a pretty young woman in a middle-class pullover.
“Nichevo,” she answers in Russian (“it’s nothing”), with a bored Slavic shrug of the shoulders, just as I notice a pair of insect-like mandibles protruding from the base of her jaw. And I wake up whispering bozhe moi, bozhe moi. My God, my God.
(Once again via