Born in Ukraine in 1984, Yelena Moskovich moved to the US with her family at the age of seven, and later trained as a playwright in Boston. She settled in Paris, studying physical theatre at the Lecoq School, and completing a Masters in Art, Philosophy and Aesthetics. The Natashas, her first novel, is as conceptually challenging and aesthetically inventive as her background promises. She writes well in what is not her first language, making English (and indeed several other languages) her own, and developing a genius for metaphor and simile, which results in startling imagery and hints at the multilingualism of cosmopolitan Paris, where the majority of the novel is set.
The narrative follows Béatrice, a blonde, chignoned jazz singer with a figure like Marilyn Monroe, and César, a young gay actor from Mexico who lands his first job playing a “Latino psycho” convicted of doing “dark things” to five young women. Threading both their stories together is the spectre of a windowless, concrete room full of “Natashas”, promising a disturbing confluence of events.
Natasha, we learn, is the generic name given by traffickers and clients to the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who ‘disappear’ into the international sex trade every year:
… A woman from Eastern Europe can be sold for 800 US Dollars to, say, Amsterdam or Prague or Istanbul. Whether she’s Bulgarian or Ukrainian or Latvian, to the customers, she’s Russian. Whether she is Pavla or Olena or Salomeya, to the customers, her name is Natasha. Once the money is exchanged and her passport taken from her, it is then that she leaves her body.
This is, however, the only glimpse of this wider political context, and indeed the only hard data we are given. Instead, the novel explores the implications of this homogenization of identity. It hones in on the moment when the spirit – abused, disoriented and disenfranchised – leaves the body, and the “Natasha” is free to inhabit all her past lives, to remember ex-lovers, moments of happiness, to imagine she’s a sunflower.
As a result, Moskovich’s narrative voice has the quality of floating slightly above its characters, evoking the disconnect, not only between mind and body, but between individuals, between action and intent, thought and speech. The story is structured like an Escher staircase, space and time converging in ways that don’t quite make sense. Coincidences bring one character up against another and yet their narratives pass each other by like unknown faces in a crowd. Flânerie is given a postmodern re-write; César runs through the streets to assuage his anxiety, and finds himself stalking a mysterious woman.
Moskovich clearly knows her adopted city. Paris itself looms heavy in this novel, becoming a sexual being in its own right; at times glimpsed in the ‘lacy’ underwear of Haussmannization, at others revealing a darker side in which men with “breath like a fly’s wings rubbing together” spy on half-clothed women through shop windows. This is perhaps the central concern of The Natashas; not in fact the multi-million dollar sex trade itself, but the wider cultural objectification of women. Like the Natashas who are forced to parade naked, Béatrice becomes increasingly atomised – reduced to her breasts, her “immaculate” blonde hair and transparent black lace dress, and constantly appraising herself in the mirrors that litter the novel. On stage, in the “fuzzy darkness of the bar”, she gives a rendition of Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la vida”, a song famously in praise of sight, at the same time as the scrutiny of the audience and their “various fragmented grins” makes her “grow hollow from the inside”. Moskovich appropriates the modernist fragment and the “most romantic” of modern cities to portray the “mutilation of human life” by myriad acts of sexual violence, big and small. The Louvre becomes a concrete room, a “prison”, whose walls are adorned with the “PAINtings” of all the world’s Natashas.