review by Jennifer Jenkins
Lenin’s Asylum: Two Years in Moldova, the travel memoir by A.A. Weiss, has an intriguing opening line: “I entered Riscani through an alley of vodka bars.”
He then runs into the town’s monuments; a burned out asylum and a statue to Lenin across the street. If this is where he’s headed, the reader certainly wants to take this trip along with him.
Weiss has volunteered through the Peace Corps to spend 27 months in Moldova, a former Soviet Republic between Romania and Ukraine. He’s assigned as an English teacher to the town of Riscani, where the official language is Russian, or maybe Romanian, Ukrainian, or possibly one of the many dialects like Gagauzian that is a combination. He arrives with some Russian in his language bag, and he quickly picks up more from his host family.
Riscani townspeople are fascinated by the American teacher, bombarding him with questions about the jobs and salaries in America. They are straightforward in their comments, unconcerned if he fully understands or not. He’s also in for a eye-opening experience on his first day at school. His students — from fifth graders through ninth — talk back, often swearing, yell at each other and resolve their issues with punches, and have many questions for Mr. Aaron about sex.
He introduces his host family, who help him with local customs. He adjusts to the food, or relative lack thereof, and cruises the local bazaar in search of fruits and vegetables that will keep him from malnutrition. His sad search for an orange will make readers appreciate the relative ease with which we can pick one up at a grocery store at any time.
As he navigates his first year of teaching, Weiss keeps a fairly optimistic point of view as to his educational impact. He does wonder, at one point, “Was I helping? Was I even capable of helping? Or was I just meant to be an observable model of how others in the world acted? Had the value of my work, then, exhausted itself after my first day in country?” This is a valid question without a measurable outcome.
The beginning of Lenin’s Asylum is a little abrupt. Weiss seems reluctant to reveal too much about himself or his decision to join the Peace Corps. This has a tendency to put distance in his journey. While he travels to Spain, Turkey, and Egypt, these sections are short and offer little more than details of drinks with other volunteers.
Weiss does assist the district attorney with language on a formal petition to the Austrian government when a Riscani girl travels to Salzburg for work and, upon arrival, is instead raped, drugged, and forced to work as a prostitute.
“For the first time in Moldova, I felt truly useful. Teaching English to half-focused high schoolers had never give me the same buzz in my fingertips.”
Later he assists at a camp to instruct girls hoping to work overseas on how to maintain self-respect and avoid the same fate. As opposed to teaching, this may be his true calling.