What happens when a Russian writer invites a coterie composed of high school friends Karen and Vinod, international traveler Ed, one of his writing students named Dee Cameron, and a famous Actor to spend the first few weeks of the pandemic shutdown at his country estate, House on the Hill, an hour away from New York City? That is the stuff of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, “Our Country Friends” (Random House, 2021). Although it is not the first novel focused on the pandemic, it is certainly the most telling about the trend in modern pandemic literature. A lot of us must have been reading and writing during this strange, isolated period.
Enter the dramatis personae who populate this little, would-be noble country estate, suffering as it is from poor plumbing and sketchy Internet connection. The owner of the colony is Sasha Senderovsky, an eccentric writer of television screenplays, along with his wife Masha, a psychiatrist, and their young daughter who is obsessed with the Korean pop sensation BTS. Over meals and daily life old infatuations, unrealized goals, and new obsessions spring forth to complicate what should be a safe harbor from the virus, even for these rich, college educated, elite pandemic pilgrims.
It seems, however, that psychologically none of the players is safe in this odd circumstance, but just who is worse off is hard to tell. The self-absorbed Actor wants to play Odysseus. Ed and the Actor are infatuated with Dee. Childless Karen fantasizes about taking the couple’s daughter to Korea to see BTS. Vinod has been in love with Karen since high school and now is dying from cancer. Uncle Vanya, Anna Karenina, or Dr. Zhivago could gallop in on horses any minute.
With mischief and fun cultural references to everyone from Chekhov to rap lyrics, this is a Russian-styled tale for people who grew up in the 1990s, rather than the 1890s. One thing it does tell us about modern literature is that sex, love, food, plumbing problems and death are perennial complications in literature as in life. In Shteyngart’s hands they become a modern philosophy more overt and real in its display than Chekhov could have ever dreamed. I can’t find anything wrong with that.
For the first meal of the gathering Senderovsky had been saving a pasta nel sacco to delight his well-traveled epicurean guests. This recipe is difficult to find in English and the pasta unavailable, so I substituted a more locally flavored dish, lasagna rollups seasoned with Mexican chorizo and hot Mexican tomato sauce to achieve the same culinary idea. As they say in Russian, vashe zdorov’ye, to your health.
Mexican Lasagna Rollups
10 regular lasagna noodles
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 9 oz. package chorizo, ground beef, or Italian sausage
1 14.5 oz. can petite diced tomatoes in juice
1 24 oz. jar chunky onion and garlic pasta sauce
1 small container Mexican hot tomato sauce, such as Del Fuerte
8 oz. ricotta cheese
1 package Serrano ham or prosciutto
2 cups grated mozzarella
Cilantro and queso fresco for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large stock pot prepare noodles according to package directions. Meanwhile, melt butter in large skillet and sauté onions about 3 minutes. Add garlic and chorizo and continue cooking until chorizo has broken up and is bubbling, about 5 minutes, or until hamburger and sausage has browned, if using. Add the tomatoes, pasta sauce, and hot tomato sauce to taste (half a container or more) and continue heating. Remove the noodles and lay out on a covered tray. Spread each with a layer of ricotta and half a slice of ham or prosciutto. Roll each up. Ladle enough of the sauce to cover the bottom of a 9 inch baking dish. Place rolls seam side down in the pan then top with remaining sauce, covering all. Top with mozzarella and bake for 45 minutes until bubbly and cheese has a nice browning. Remove from oven and garnish with crumbled queso fresco and cilantro.