Review

    This Is Not Civilization
    by Robert Rosenberg (Kyrgyzstan 1994–96)
    Houghton Mifflin
    June 2004
    288 pages
    $24.00

    Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

    RETURNED PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS reading This Is Not Civilization, the entertaining novel by Robert Rosenberg, are likely to kick themselves for not having written something similar. Much of the first part of the novel examines the life of Jeff Hartig, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan whose experiences — or most of them, anyway — are typical of what PCVs all over the world undergo.
         After all, what Peace Corps Volunteer hasn’t met host country nationals who, because of their intimate acquaintance with Hollywood movies, think they know what all Americans are like? Anarbek, a prominent member of the Kyrgyz village where Jeff is stationed, shows Jeff his new house. Of special interest is the refrigerator. It is full of beer. “‘Americans always have a refrigerator full of beer,’ Anarbek announced. ‘I saw it in the films.’”
         And what Peace Corps Volunteer hasn’t encountered less-than-ideal working conditions? “. . . [O]n most doors hung freshly painted signs with the word OPASNIE! — DANGER! Anarbek hurried Jeff past these, straight to the door of his classroom; but when he triumphantly turned the loose knob to usher Jeff in, he found that the door was locked. This apparently was a surprise. Anarbek cursed, fumbled in his pocket for the keys, and finding none, promptly bashed the door with a thunderous front-thrust kick. It swung open; the knob fell and rattled on the ground. Jeff stepped in and saw that his classroom was a converted closet . . ..”
         Lastly, what Peace Corps Volunteer hasn’t experienced the kind of disillusionment Jeff feels toward the end of his service? “Last summer he had charged into Central Asia, thinking he could preach the virtues of democracy and the necessity of basic human rights. Instead he was teaching the simple past tense to unemployed milkmaids for the fourth time. He was culturally exhausted.”
         But if some of the terrain Rosenberg covers in his novel will be familiar to RPCVs, and will perhaps prompt mumbles of “I could have written that,” his deft juggling of four main characters across a wide geography — from an Apache reservation in Arizona to Istanbul — is an accomplishment only a first-rate writer could pull off.
         The tell-tale sign of a good writer is this: A reader wants to keep reading his work. And while you wouldn’t call This is Not Civilization a page-turner, you’ll definitely find yourself absorbed by it.
         This Is Not Civilization is certainly fast-paced. In another writer’s hands, Jeff’s Peace Corps service might have occupied the entire book. Instead, Jeff finishes his tour by page 104. In the meantime, we follow the three other major characters — Adam, a talented and troubled Apache, Anarbek, the owner of a cheese factory that produces no cheese, and Nazira, Anarbek’s alluring, impulsive daughter — in their up-and-down lives.
         Rosenberg’s major accomplishment in This Is Not Civilization is making the Kyrgyz characters seem entirely believable. Indeed, Anarbek and Nazira are the most attractive characters in the novel — all the more so because of their flaws. Anarbek is a lovable adulterer who, facing the closing of his cheese factory, leaves his country in pursuit of a solution to his impending financial ruin. And Nazira, who refuses to be the bride of the man who “stole” her in an ancient courting ritual, later becomes pregnant and must confront ostracism because she’s a single mother. At the same time, she must hunt down her wayward father and bring him back to the village and family he has abandoned.
         The American characters, particularly Jeff, are less appealing. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Jeff isn’t idealistic and altruistic but feckless and self-centered. His way of dealing with the most pressing problems he faces is to run or give up. One wonders if Rosenberg, worried readers would assume Jeff was autobiographical, purposely made his character un-saint-like. (Better to be thought a knave than an angel?) By the end of the book, you may find yourself indifferent to Jeff’s fate.
         The thumbnail biographical sketch of Rosenberg on the back of his novel reads like a synopsis of the novel itself. Yes, Rosenberg worked on an Apache reservation. Yes, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in newly independent Kyrgyzstan. And, yes, he worked in Istanbul during the massive earthquake in 1999. (The earthquake is the centerpiece of the last part of the novel, when all four major characters find themselves pursuing different dreams while sharing an apartment.) But while less talented writers would pour too much description of setting into their work simply to show readers they’d been to the far-flung places they’re writing about, Rosenberg, in most cases, offers just the right kind of details to capture a place.
         Here’s his description of a bar in Turkey: “The pub was growing crowded. It usually filled up on weeknights by eleven. Stylish Turkish women in tight silk blouses, hints of red in their naturally dark hair, arrived in groups of four. Some had boyfriends — large, chain-smoking men who circled around them like secret-service agents. Others came to the pub on the prowl, hunting for a husband and a golden visa.”
         And here’s a detail that seems entirely implausible yet utterly authentic. It’s the novel’s opening sentence: “The idea of using porn films to encourage the dairy cows to breed was a poor one.”
         Don’t you want to keep reading?

    Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have been published in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Volt, Many Mountains Moving and other literary journals. He is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University.