The strength of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Рыбы молчат по-испански—which is listed in English on the Elkost literary agency’s Web site as Children of Rogozhin by author Nadia Guerman—lies in the novel’s gritty, character-based observations of international adoption. Belenkaya’s close narrative tells the story of Nina Koretskaya, a promising grad student who teaches Spanish and translates: Belenkaya follows psychological and external changes in Nina’s life after she begins translating and interpreting for an adoption agent named Ksenia, who collaborates with Kirill, a Canadian citizen who seldom makes appearances.
Though Children of Rogozhin is what I think of as a portrait novel and it’s a little lumpy with its tight focus on Nina, I can’t help but agree with Elkost that the book does develop into a “psychological suspense thriller,” if only toward the end. Belenkaya weaves in threads of naturalism, through horrifying stories of individual orphaned children that, along with the book’s dim view of the adoption industry, Nina’s tribulations, and Ksenia’s assertion that children are a natural resource, left me with the distinct feeling of a cautionary tale. I’ve seen little bits of adoption both as an occasional volunteer at a children’s shelter and an orphanage in Moscow, and as a Russian tutor and telephone interpreter for adopting families in my community. Which means I believe Elkost’s statement that Children of Rogozhin is based on a true story.
As for plot, Nina and Ksenia frequently travel from Moscow to Rogozhin, a small city within driving distance. Nina interprets for Spanish families, they butter up local administrators, and the two become frolleagues by spending more and more time together shopping, eating out, and even snacking on chips and caviar. Of course not all is cheery: their driver has some prejudices that trouble Nina, some families are offered children with serious problems, and documents are sometimes fabricated. Things really start to go out of control when Nina and Ksenia push Kirill out of the picture; this is where the suspense, thrills, and paranoia come in. Meanwhile, Belenkaya works in passages (and these are where the book sometimes gets lumpy) about Nina’s respect for her mentor, a woman who lives in an apartment in the House on the Embankment and has a beautiful view, as well as Nina’s hope to wrote a book about Salvador Dalí. All sorts of contrasts develop: Nina’s past and present, Ksenia’s materialness and Nina’s braininess, and an overlay of honesty versus bribery and corruption.
When I look at the notes I scribbled inside the book’s back cover, I can see why Belenkaya held my interest despite my usual ambivalence to portrait novels and despite the moments when the book felt a little melodramatic for my taste, as when Nina sees herself in the mirror as a Hitchcock blonde. Where Belenkaya excels is working in details of international adoption: a description of orphanage smells (urine, burnt milk, and unwashed children), foreign families’ dependence on local assistance, and the larger problem of indifference that an old friend of Nina’s, a woman who also formerly worked in adoption, sees as bigger than cruelty. And then there are those naturalistic stories of children’s lives, mini case histories that feel all too real...
One note on the book’s Russian title, which would translate literally into English as something like Fish Keep Quiet in Spanish. The title comes from a slogan on a Cervantes Institute bookmark that Nina has kept: the slogan begins with “В Испании” (“In Spain”) but it’s the shortened version, the words used as the book’s title, that goes through Nina’s head when she lies awake at night.
Disclaimers: I received a copy of Children of Rogozhin from the Read Russia booth at BookExpo America, thank you very much! I have also collaborated on projects with Elkost literary agency.
Up Next: I just started Evgenii Chizhov’s Перевод с подстрочника (literally Translation from a Literal Translation), a finalist for this year’s Big Book Award…