Review: Playing a Part by Daria Wilke

The problem of choice is most difficult when you are a child. How do you define yourself? How do you define your position in the world, your gender, your future sexual choices? And it is even more difficult when others try to define you. The most difficult fight is against those who want to tell you whom you are supposed to be.

The main character of Daria Wilke’s Playing a Part is a middle school-aged boy named Grisha. Another important person is his friend Sashok, a tomboy. Both of them are children of puppeteers who work for the Children’s Puppet Theater in Moscow. Daria Wilke herself is also a daughter of puppeteers, and she grew up in Moscow. She knows the world of theater through and through; she, like Grisha and Sashok, spent a lot of hours in the theater as a child. The theater in the book is a metaphor for the whole world, where good and bad are mixed together, just like in real life. Grisha takes refuge in the world of the theater because the reality outside of it is no longer friendly. His schoolmates bully him, since they believe he is gay. His grandfather treats him harshly, perceiving him as a “sissy.” But Grisha is not without help; his friend Sashok tries to protect him by pretending that she is his girlfriend.

Grisha himself does not know yet who he is, but Sam, an older acquaintance and friend of his parents and one of the leading actors in the theater, is openly gay and is planning his immigration to Holland, because today’s Russia is not very hospitable to those who are different. In the theater, Sam and his beautiful puppet play the part of the jester. This puppet is a favorite of Grisha’s and Sashok’s, and when the girl falls ill and must have an operation, the boy makes a new jester puppet to cheer her up. Grisha also often plays the part of the class clown or jester in school; jokes help him to divert the aggression of his former friends and classmates.

Right after the publication of this book, one of Russia’s parliamentary laws which basically prohibits the exploration of gay themes in books for readers under 18, started being enforced. As a result, teens now cannot buy Wilke’s book, and the designated age printed on its cover is 18+. Needless to say, this book is clearly addressed to younger readers, and its suggested age in the US is 12 and up. This book is even more important now because of the persecution of gay Chechens and the open anti-gay attitude in Russia.

The book’s translator Marian Schwartz is very well-known for her excellent translations of Russian classics, such as Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Goncharov, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Yuri Olesha, as well as contemporary Russian authors, Mikhail Shishkin, Olga Slavnikova, and Andrei Gelasimov. Middle-grade literature is an unusual and quite successful choice for Schwartz.

Since publishing Playing a Part, Daria Wilke has published three more books for teens. Her new works are amazing philosophical parables, intriguing and often tragic.

Olga Bukhina

Playing a Part
Daria Wilke
Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
2015, Arthur A. Levine Books
ISBN: 9780545726078
Russian edition: 2013, Samokat Publishing House

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