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Absurd Empires

Interview: Jefferson Chase
October 18, 2007

Novelist Gary Shteyngart was born in Russia but moved to the US at age seven. Currently in Berlin, he took time off from writing to discuss his latest work and what's going wrong in both of his home countries.

Gary Shteyngart
Shteyngart describes Russia and the US as dying and soon-to-be-dead empiresImage: presse/Berlin Verlag

With his 2003 debut "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and the follow-up "Absurdistan" from 2006, Gary Shteyngart established his credentials as one of the English language's best young writers and a satirist with a talent for highlighting the absurdities of both the East and the West after the Cold War. Now he's trying something a bit different.

DW-WORLD.DE: Your books have been read and marketed as part of a new immigrant literature in the US, but they're not at all earnest or politically correct. Why is that?

Gary Shteyngart: Well, first of all, because I was very unlucky and got sent to this horrible Hebrew school. If it wasn't for those eight years being told by rabbis that the Holocaust happened because I ate a piece of pork salami, I don't think you would have had books like "Absurdistan." That took away any sense I might have had about anything being sacred. Unless you were an idiot, you could see from a mile away that a lot of things were just plain stupid and very coercive. Then I went to a really great high school in Manhattan that was a true melting pot, a holding pen for multinational nerds. It was a place where Chinese, Russian and Indian people gathered together, and it was a real free-for-all. Then I went to Oberlin College, and that was the final straw. From the moment I got there I just wanted to make fun of it. The first week I was there, I got chewed out for calling some a freshman instead of a "fresh person," and there was a professor who had devoted his life to translating Brezhnev's works into Yiddish. So that was maybe the best part of my education since it gave me such wonderful targets to go after.

You're working on a new book as a fellow of the American Academy here in Berlin. What's the novel about?

It's the first book I've set almost entirely in America, and it takes place -- God help me because the phrase "speculative fiction" makes my skin crawl -- in the near future. It follows the love affair of two immigrants, as America slowly disintegrates. New York and Los Angeles have become two heavily guarded areas, or what I call "cooperative exclusion zones." A small group of rich shareholders achieve immortality, while the vast majority of the population loses the ability to speak, read and write in English. And that's what happens to one of the two lovers.

That's very different from your first two books, which feature unscrupulous US-immigrant protagonists forced to go back to an absurd, violent and materialistic eastern Europe. One sets up a pyramid scheme in Prague, while the other tries to procure a fake passport amidst a Halliburton-sponsored war in the Caucasus. Why the change in the emphasis?

Well, I can't do the same story over and over again. The first book, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," dealt with the rise of turbo-capitalism in eastern Europe, and the second, "Absurdistan," took that further by bringing in US foreign policy, specifically the politics of the oil industry. The third one deals with the fact that we in the US have become "Absurdistan" in some respects, for instance, in our approach to human rights issues, privacy and upholding the Constitution. One of the worst outcomes of 9/11 is that many of the people who traditionally came to America are now having second thoughts about that. I also wanted to write about the baby boomers' inability to come to terms with their own mortality. And lastly, this book features a love affair that runs from page one to page 350 or whatever. I've never done that before.

Why come to Berlin if the book is set almost entirely in America?

I work a lot better off-shore, so to speak, than in America. There's something about being in countries where I don't speak the language. Most of "Absurdistan" was written in Italy. And I'm working much faster here than I ever have before. Like in New York, there's both an excitement and a gloom about the city, but what interests me is that, unlike New York, there's a real collision of East and West here. To think that we're only an hour and a half from Poland here is really amazing.

What do you think then about the latest developments in eastern Europe, in particular Vladimir Putin's Russia? Some of them resemble the fictional scenarios you created in "Absurdistan."

I began writing that book before 9/11 and before Halliburton got so involved in Iraq. But I was observing events in Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the path looked very clear. In the book I'm writing now, Russia is called "Petro-State Russia." And that's exactly what Russia is -- a state run on the profits of natural gas, oil and a couple of other commodities. Putin has done it. There's a chance that there will be no opposition parties whatsoever in the next Russian election. There's not even a pretense of democracy. Basically, Putin can have power for life if he wants it. He can just say: "Now I'm going to be the president, now I'm going to be the prime minister." He'll just take the power with him from office to office like a traveling bag. The country has sold out any ideals of democracy it ever had for the idea some sort of stability. And there's a huge gap between rich and poor -- in my third book, I'm calling that up and bringing it back to America.

It doesn't sound as though you have high hopes for either Russia or the US.

I was brought up between these two empires, one of which died and the other of which is dying in its own way. As far as Russia goes, there's a restaurant in St. Petersburg that's called "1913," which is known as the only good year in Russian history. It's an autocratic country with an autocratic tradition and an autocratic church. With America, I feel very much an American these days, because something I love is being destroyed. For those of us who were displaced at an early age, America was always the place to go to, and the worst result of 9/11 would be that it stops being that.

George Bush and Vladimir Putin
Shteyngart says both Bush and Putin have betrayed the ideals of democracyImage: AP
An oil field in Azerbaijan
The politics of eastern European oil is a Shteyngart specialityImage: picture-alliance / dpa
Book jacket
The German version of "Absurdistan" is called "Snack Daddy's Adventurous Trip"
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