SMuch has changed since the Golosovsky girls disappeared. Olja no longer sees her best friend. The city center is too dangerous, thinks her mother and has finally found a reason to forbid her daughter from interacting with Olja. Meanwhile, the student Ksyusha is under the thumb of her boyfriend: Ruslan wants to know around the clock where she is and whether she is safe. And Oksana is under pressure from the police. As the only witness who saw the kidnapping of the girls, she is said to provide the investigators with valuable information. But she only vaguely remembers a sparkling clean car and a tall man. Eleven-year-old Aljona and her three-year-old sister Sofija got into his car. After that, nobody saw her again.
“The Disappearance of the Earth” reads like an anthology of short stories. Each chapter is devoted to the tragedy for one month in a row; and one woman each, whose life she touches more or less directly. The place of the event: Petropavlovsk, the only big city on the volcanic Kamchatka peninsula, in the very east of Russia. Separated from the rest of the country by mountains and miles of tundra, it can only be reached by ship or plane and was a military exclusion zone in Soviet times. The author, who made her debut in this farthest corner of the world, is American.
Generation conflicts and corruption
Julia Phillips, born in New Jersey in 1989, went to Kamchatka on a Fulbright scholarship in 2011 to research the consequences of increasing tourism. The resulting novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award 2019. “The Disappearance of the Earth” begins with a map and a rather intimidating list of figures. But the clean chapter structure and the different living conditions of the women described, their professions and views not only keep the investigation up to date – Soja’s husband works as a police inspector, Valentina and some others are constantly developing their own theories about the crime.
They also reveal a lot about the construction sites in the region: an underdeveloped infrastructure, generational conflicts, corruption. The resulting distrust in the administration and even in one’s own family, which is mainly reflected in narrow-mindedness and racism. Against foreigners, migrants from the former Eastern Bloc countries, against the indigenous people. Sixteen-year-old Lilja, a member of the small ethnic group of the Ewenen from the north, also disappeared a year ago. But the police put her mother off: I’m sure she was just fed up with village life and left. This already indicates that the real problem here is by no means that a closely connected community does not want to be looked at in the cards.
A landscape of pale bones
Above all, however, it is the polyphony that gives “The Disappearance of the Earth” great emphasis. Kamchatka never blurs into a blurred postcard motif, because Phillips describes the peninsula, its history and its inhabitants close to the contrasting gazes of their characters. Where a volcanologist praises the beauty of the mountains and forests, for a frustrated mother a constantly submerged kitchen suppresses any impression of grandeur. And Oksana, desperately looking for her runaway dog, suddenly sees how bleak the streets are, the prefabricated buildings with the drunks in front of them.
All the different voices, ethnicities, generations, layers of Phillips’ admirably clear language are held together, always in flux, only occasionally broken up by morbid images that the country itself seems to spit out – slashed fish, a landscape of pale bones.
Otherwise there is not much cohesion. In other stories, it might be a rotten detective who comes to Petropavlovsk as an outsider to uncover the dark secrets of the neighborhood. But the characters in “The Disappearance of the Earth” stand all alone in the center of their respective universe, their secrets remain unhidden, their suffering undivided.
Only the missing sisters fulfill the function of empty canvases in this constellation, onto which the women of Kamchatka project their wishes, fears and frustrations. Only at the beginning and at the end does Phillips come back to the girls themselves. Aljona tells her little sister the fairy tale of a village that was washed into the sea by a tsunami. The residents survive in a giant bubble, and everyone helps each other swim back to land. Perhaps she was taught by the ancients who persistently mourn the values of the Soviet Union. Or the younger ones with their vague visions of a better life. They are all united only by their unfulfilled longings. The outsider, the detective who uncovered this only commonality, is Julia Phillips herself.
Julia Phillips: “The Disappearance of the Earth”. Novel. Translated from the English by Pociao and Roberto de Hollanda. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 2021. 376 pp., Hardcover, 22, – €.