Friday, 8 July 2011
In Conversation with: Andrey Kurkov
Andrey Kurkov: I wrote this novel as reply to Ukrainian nationalists who were attacking me for not writing in Ukrainian language. In fact two recognizable figures in the novel are Petro and Galia who have real prototypes and who in a novel written in Russian speak Ukrainian. In spite of political issues touched upon in this novel it’s still an adventure novel as well as a portrait of post-Soviet society.
SR: You actually wrote The Good Angel of Death in the late 1990s but it has only recently been translated into English. What is it like to return to a book after such a long time?
AK: The book has a life of its own and was less than two years ago translated into Ukrainian. When the book first appeared in Russian in 1997 there was a request to ban it from the National Academy of Ukrainian Language and Literature. Some old soviet-turned-Ukrainian academicians accused me of making fun of ideas of Ukrainian identity and of Taras Shevchenko – national poet, who also was considered national Ukrainian poet in the Soviet Era in spite of his anti-Semitism, anti-Polish and anti-Russian feelings.
SR: Has your appraisal of the book changed over these intervening years?
AK: If changed then not a lot. The book is still being discussed and there still enough people who would like to see it banned. But at the same time this year I was first time invited to be a guest-speaker at the Taras Shevchenko traditional Anniversary gathering.
SR: Tell us a little about Taras Shevchenko, whose legacy is at the heart of events here.
AK: He was brought up as a peasant-slave, early started painting and writing poetry and somehow got noticed buy famous Russian Artist from St Petersburg Illya Repin, who collected enough money to buy him out from his owner. Rumours have it that all people involved in this process were Russian masons. Then he was taken to St Peterbourg to study in Fine Art Academy. There at this time was fashion for everything Ukrainian, everybody was crazy about Gogol who also moved to St Petersbourg and wrote surreal novels with lots of Ukrainian words and myths and magic. Taras Shevchenko continued writing poetry and this poetry was quite anti-Russian and anti-tsar. At some point Russian secret police caught up with him and as a punishment he was enrolled in the Russian Army for 25 years. He was sent to Kazakhstan where the officers tried their best to make his life and service as comfortable as possible. He was taken with military-topographic expedition to Aral Sea where he had to draw the maps. He left behind excellent drawings about Kazakh life and continued secretly to write poetry and prose. All his prose and half of his poetry he wrote in Russian.
SR: You were born in St Petersburg but grew up and live in Kiev. Were these different national identities present in you before the end of the Soviet Union, or did they only become significant when you could no-longer think of yourself as Soviet?
AK: In the Soviet time the identity was not important unless you were a Jew. For Russians living in West Ukraine it could have being a problem since that region was always anti-Russian and anti-Polish, otherwise everybody was just a Soviet person. It’s only after 1991 the identity started playing major role in people’s destinies.
SR: Throughout the novel Kolya has two dreams: one of being a Russian Hero and one of being a Ukrainian ragamuffin. Is this a dichotomy you feel about your own dual identity?
AK: Possibly such things turn up in the text and the author might not notice sometimes that he writes about himself.
SR: Kolya also conducts pretty earnest meditations on how songs, or Snickers bars, can contribute to international understanding in hostile terrain. Do you share such lofty beliefs?
AK: Well, probably not, but I met many people who think this way. And there are even theories in Ukraine, that Ukrainian people’s songs and fairy-tales are friendly and romantic whereas Russian ones are aggressive and emotionless.
SR: All but two of your novels have animals in them and here it is a chameleon that becomes Kolya’s spirit guide through the journey. What is it about animals that so appeals to you?
AK: One thing – they are predictable unlike people and it’s easy to make them behave naturally in the novels. I do like animals and I don’t like zoos
SR: You started out by self-publishing your early novels. Is it true that you received more than 500 rejections from publishers before you took this decision?
AK: In fact my first book was published by Soviet publishing house a couple of months before the collapse of the USSR, second was pirates’ edition of my children’s book in St-Petersburg with a print-run of 100 000 copies! And 3 and 4th I published myself in Kiev in 1993 with total print-run of 75 000 which I all sold within one year, but had no time to write until this story was over. Yes, I got hundreds of rejections and still keep a lot of them in my archive.
SR: I recently read an interview in which you talked about how you went about self publishing your early novels and the story you told about buying paper in Kazakhstan and organising a train journey to transport the paper to Kiev, reminded me rather a lot of the plot of The Good Angel of Death. How close is the fictional journey to your real journey?
AK: Part of the journey from Azerbajdjan via Dagestan and Russia to Kiev I did make myself. As to Kazakhstan – it was my older brother who knew Kazakhstan very well and worked there several times during summers.
SR: Your books often feature three prominent threads: alcohol, the Mafia, and death. I’d like to ask you a general question about each of these.
SR:Alcohol: is there a relationship between the absurdities of your novels and the heavy drinking that the characters get up to?
AK: Alcohol can be in fact useful to understand the absurdities of post-soviet life as well as alcohol can make people to be absurdly creative.
SR: The Mafia: At times it feels that the Mafia are everywhere in your books. Were the Mafia as central to everyday post-Soviet life as you portray? Has this changed in the years since?
AK: In 1991-1997 Mafia was playing big and rather sad part in the society, fulfilling the functions of courts, judges, tax-offices etc. Now it’s very different. It might be present on the high level in arms-deals and similar things, but it’s not obvious anymore, much more obvious is civil servants corruption and such.
SR: Death: Death features prominently in many of your books, yet they are never morbid. This leads me to suspect that death is more of a metaphor in your work than an impending terror? What is it a metaphor for?
AK: Life can be compared with a sentence, where comas are problems of all kind and full stop is death not as a tragedy but as a reason to stop ones story in order to start a new one or to continue another one. Death can be deserved as in negative so also in positive sense. I don’t like any elements of terror since terror for me is something artificial created by evil people whereas death is natural and not necessarily evil.
SR: What impact do you think Soviet society, and in particular Soviet communal living has on the characters and mentality of your books?
AK: Huge impact in most of the cases, although in my latest novels the characters are already post-post-soviet, i.e. born too late to bare the traces of soviet mentality.
SR: Your last book translated into English was The President’s Last Love, which contained a not very thinly veiled attack on Vladimir Putin. Do you know whether Putin ever read the book?
AK: Well, his aides definitely read the book and the result was that my Russian Publisher suddenly decided not to publish my works anymore, books were removed from all bookshops in Russia and one could get some of them only in internet-shops. This situation continued for 18 months.
SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
AK: Yes, while I thought that writers don’t need to go to work every morning, and I felt I have enough imagination to become one.
SR: Are you working on another book at the moment?
AK: I am writing a novel set in a wonderful West Ukrainian city of Lviv. In fact this city has more than 5 names, named each time by the nation which was then removed and replaced by next nation. It was once Roman, once German, once Polish, than Soviet and now Ukrainian. It’s slightly surreal story about todays Ukraine. In fact Lviv is a place where Masochism was created by Leopold Zaher von Mazoh (UK readers might better recognise Leopold von Sacher-Masoch)– German-Jewish writer who was an ordinary civil servant.
SR: Are there any other, similar books you would urge us to read?
AK: Well, why not to read Zaher von Mazoh’s books?
SR: Will do! Which other writers do you admire?
AK: Andrei Platonov, Maxim Gorky, Jack London, Gogol, Bulgakov
SR: What are your favourite books?
AK: Sorokin Kremlin Made of Sugar; Day of Oprichnik, Knut Hamsun’s, James Kellman (how late it was, how late),
SR: Finally, are there any questions we should have asked but didn’t? Is there anything more you would like to say but haven’t had a chance to?
AK: I wonder is a reader always happy to find in the book of a preferred author exactly what he expected from this author?! Clichés used by writers to please the readers.
SR: An interesting thought to conclude, and one that probably has many different answers. Andrey, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.