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The Trial

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James Messerschmidt/The New York Times/Redux
Mazoltuv Borukhova at her sentencing to life in prison for the murder of her husband, April 21, 2009

As for Borukhova, she is everywhere and nowhere. Every page is permeated by her aura, but seen close up—even on the witness stand—she breaks apart into a succession of versions mediated through slightly different narratives. Malcolm goes so far as to put her own impressions in question by admitting at the outset to a “sisterly bias” toward Borukhova, and acknowledging that had she been a prospective juror she would not, had she been candid, have survived the voir dire. Reporting a conversation with the court-appointed Russian interpreter, she describes the two as sharing the sense that Borukhova “couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” Others perceived her as “manipulative” or “cold” or “obsessed.” Some jurors later said that her appearance on the stand had sunk the defense’s case because of her unnaturally aloof demeanor. In general, it would appear, “Borukhova’s otherness was her defining characteristic.”

Malcolm is less concerned with imagining the unknowable “real” Borukhova than in demonstrating the many ways in which others’ perception of her was skewed by small points of language and behavior. A major piece of evidence—a conversation with Mallayev that Borukhova secretly recorded five months before the killing—hinged on the proper translation of a Russian phrase of which wildly different interpretations were offered. Borukhova’s testimony went awry from the start, in Malcolm’s estimation, by her relentless quibbling with the prosecutor over whether her husband had “sued” for divorce or (in Borukhova’s preferred phrasing) “applied” for a divorce. Her failure to look at the jury while she testified made her invisible to them: “I watched them not watching her.”

The trial is haunted by the earlier proceeding—“the navel of the case”—in which Borukhova lost custody of her daughter. In tracing how that event came about Malcolm comes to the heart of her book. The Iphigenia of the title is the child Michelle, with Borukhova figuring as the Clytemnestra committing violence for having been deprived of her; and Daniel Malakov, according to some of the evidence, seems to have been as little eager to remove Michelle from her mother as Agamemnon was to sacrifice his daughter. The murder itself, we are permitted to wonder, may never have happened if what had been a private story of a failed marriage had not become a public one involving a large ancillary cast of characters: social workers, psychologists, lawyers, judges.

Daniel and Mazoltuv had married in 2002, against his family’s wishes (according to her testimony); they had enjoyed a relationship that from different perspectives sounds passionate, obsessive, stormy. His family told Malcolm that Borukhova had affronted the chaste norms of the Bukharan community with her provocative displays of affection to her husband. After their daughter’s birth things degenerated rapidly. There were quarrels over proper feeding and over the role Borukhova’s mother should play in raising the child. The couple separated, with Borukhova retaining custody; over a year later Malakov sued for divorce. Borukhova thereupon launched allegations in family court that her husband had sexually molested Michelle, charges dismissed when the witnesses she produced—a neighbor and a building worker—recanted their statements and said they had been “bullied” into testifying by Borukhova’s sister Natella.

At this point the Queens family court appointed a lawyer, David Schnall, as law guardian to represent the interests of Michelle. Schnall, who eventually testified for the prosecution at the murder trial, never actually met Michelle: in the Lewis Carroll–ish world of the law, it turns out that “not speaking to their clients is almost a badge of honor among law guardians.” Schnall emerges as a pivotal figure, a subsidiary presence whose influence is made to seem determining, and driven by motives difficult to determine. Between November 2005, when the case came under the supervision of the family court, and October 2007, when Judge Sidney Strauss made his custody ruling, Daniel was allowed to visit his daughter only at supervised visits at a private social agency with Borukhova present. The description of one such visit, offered in evidence before the judge, occupies Malcolm’s close attention:

Mr. Malakov constantly greets Michelle with upbeat tone and voice, a smile, and is attempting to hug her. Michelle is not responding…. Michelle does not speak to Mr. Malakov or make eye contact…. Michelle will cling to her mother…. Michelle often buries her head in the mother’s shoulder and will turn her body away from Mr. Malakov as he attempts to engage her.

The visits would end in the child crying hysterically and unconsolably.

The judgment of Strauss—couched in language of extreme personal condemnation—was that Borukhova had actively prevented Michelle from bonding with her father and that therefore the child should be immediately given in custody to Malakov. “In other words,” Malcolm writes indignantly, “the solution to the problem of a child who cries hysterically when threatened with separation from her mother while in the presence of her absent father—is to take the child away from the mother and send her to live with the father!” Malakov had not sought custody; he didn’t even want to go before the judge that day, and neither did Borukhova. It was David Schnall who pushed the matter energetically forward, serving at this point, in Malcolm’s reading, as “a powerful second lawyer for Daniel Malakov” who “fed and fanned Strauss’s fury at Borukhova.”

Schnall takes center stage in a telephone interview with Malcolm, reluctantly agreed to, in which after a brief discussion of the case he veers, for reasons known only to himself, into a more general presentation of his ideas, declaring (in a portentous credo that seems like a crude echo of some of Malcolm’s more paradoxical aphorisms): “Everything we know to be true isn’t true.” He launches into a lengthy monologue whose tone is conveyed in Malcolm’s notes:

Banks do not lend money. They have no money….
We need enemies. There will be genocidal austerity….
We’ve been living under the ten planks of the Communist Manifesto. We’re a Communist country….
Polio vaccine doesn’t cure polio. The male sperm gene is down seventy-five percent. We’re almost completely sterile….
Everything I’ve said is not opinion, it’s fact. THEY control the world.

This monologue spurs the most unexpected moment of Malcolm’s narrative—when, in her words, “I did something I have never done before as a journalist. I meddled with the story I was reporting.” She relays her notes on the conversation with Schnall to the defense attorney, who files a motion to recall Schnall for questioning regarding his mental health—a motion unceremoniously quashed by the judge.

Malcolm’s intervention was not an action that would be universally regarded as appropriate for a trial reporter. What is fascinating is that, having vividly sketched the circumstances that led to her taking this initiative, she says nothing further about her motives, and makes no comment on any afterthoughts she may have had—whether of regret or self- justification—when the motion was denied. Having for a moment turned herself into another actor in the story, she dutifully records that actor’s contribution, providing enough evidence for the reader to make a judgment, and then changes the subject when the action is of no further relevance.

There is scarcely a piece of evidence, no matter how concrete, that cannot be given contrary readings. On the day Borukhova delivered Michelle into Malakov’s custody, she arranged for a filmmaker to videotape the whole process, a tape, evidently devastating, that was shown in court:

For almost an hour, we heard the child scream until she was hoarse, as she was carried for several blocks down a street and, finally, pulled out of her mother’s arms by Daniel and taken into Khaika Malakov’s house.

This was intended to raise questions about why Michelle was so unwilling to be given over to her father’s care. But the prosecution turned it into an indictment of Borukhova’s heartlessness in subjecting her child to being filmed in that fashion.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills is not a legal brief. It goes beyond what would be regarded as relevant to the legal arguments in the case—even beyond the specific questions of guilt that the trial was about. A reader might well conclude that despite any number of possible unfairnesses in the way the trial was conducted—and despite any misjudgments and unjustifiable actions surrounding Borukhova’s loss of custody—she was indeed guilty as charged. But the ultimate legal judgment is only the beginning, not the end, of questions. In the pages that follow the verdict, as Malcolm talks with members of Malakov’s family, deeper levels of background and further shades of mystery emerge. Old stories come to the surface, about Daniel making over-the-top public pronouncements about how Borukhova was “the woman of his dreams,” about Borukhova dancing provocatively with him to the shock of the family, about Daniel’s own obsessions about the proper nutrition for his daughter, about how, back in the old country, Borukhova’s uncle had murdered his mother-in-law with an ax.

We are being led into yet another story, a story whose roots may indeed be elsewhere, in a place remote from Forest Hills and suggested by the folklorish atmosphere of the narrative elicited from Malakov’s uncle Ezra—“She wanted to stay in control like the sisters…. The husbands are like dogs for them. The husbands are afraid of them”—an exoticism akin to the Shash maqam music recorded by Ezra, music fusing Jewish liturgy and Central Asian classical modes, of which Malcolm writes:

The songs on Ezra’s recording were like no songs I had ever heard. Over instrumentation that, in its circular, teasing rhythms and vibrant twangings, evoked harem dancers, the words baruch atah adonai rang out in Ezra’s vigorous, harsh voice.

In the music another pathway opens, leading far from the matter at hand, but perhaps deeper into the world out of which these events emerged. No narrative actually ends: it is merely endlessly transformed.

Is Ezra’s music intended to hint that the book’s structure is finally musical? It is a music in which silences and the spaces between the notes count for as much as what is sounded. Every resolution is tentative and leads to a further statement that subtly displaces what preceded it by moving to a slightly different angle, establishing a slightly different frame. However much any given statement may be a model of balance and lucidity, the transitions from one to another can be brutal in their sense of disjunction. The chord that would resolve all and tell us the performance is over and we can stop listening never comes: we close the book in a state of alertness and expectancy, as if more evidence were forthcoming. A solitary, fugitive snapshot of Michelle, the daughter set adrift by this tragedy, whom Malcolm sees only for a moment in passing—“my glimpse of her face distorted by mirthless laughter”—is the closest there can be to an ending: an anticipation of future suffering. The disturbing process that has been set in motion continues after the last word. Closure is for courtrooms, not for literature.

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