Interviews June 2006

Same Planet, Different Worlds

Gary Shteyngart, author of the novel Absurdistan, discusses American rappers, Azerbaijani kidnappers, and what makes satire serious fiction
book cover

Absurdistan [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Gary Shteyngart
Random House
352 pages

In 1999, Gary Shteyngart flew into his native city of St. Petersburg, Russia, for the first time since childhood. His family had emigrated when the city was still called Leningrad, and he remembered imposing Soviet statues towering above its squares and Metro stations. That superpower grandeur was gone now: in its place were deserted fields, decaying factories, and defeated faces at passport control. “Let us be certain,” Shteyngart later wrote, summing up the wreckage. “The Cold War was won by one side and lost by another.”

These words appear in Shteyngart’s new novel Absurdistan, a post-Soviet farce inspired by what the author saw that day in 1999. In a flashback scene, Shteyngart recreates his own descent into St. Petersburg. This time, though, the man gazing out the airplane window is Misha Borisovich Vainberg, a 325-pound colossus who is the story’s narrator and protagonist.

After spending the past decade stateside, Misha is returning home to visit his “Beloved Papa,” a Jewish dissident who proudly served prison time for urinating on a neighbor’s anti-Semitic dog. Misha hopes his visit with Beloved Papa will be brief. Since his graduation from Accidental College (an American liberal arts school that is a thinly veiled parody of Shteyngart’s alma mater, Oberlin), Misha has been living in New York, and he is anxious to return to Zagat-rated restaurants and a Bronx ghetto queen named Rouenna. But his father is now a wealthy Russian oligarch, and when he commits a high-profile crime against an Oklahoma businessman, he ensures that his Misha will never again be allowed to set foot on U.S. soil.

Absurdistan opens two years later on June 15, 2001. Misha, now a prisoner in his native land, is living out a lavish yet sullen existence. He spends his days throwing shoes at his manservant and his nights gorging himself on the city’s finest cuisine. He keeps company with a cast of elite Petersburg characters, each of whom seems to have floated off the pages of a classic Russian novel: his 21-year-old mother-in-law resembles the well-married peasant girl from Fathers and Sons, while an impoverished artist who dines with him at a czarist palace brings to mind the hero of Crime and Punishment. Despite all of this high culture, Misha longs for nothing more than an evening with Rouenna folding socks at a Bronx Laundromat.

About a third of the way through the novel, Misha discovers an elaborate escape route that takes him across the Caucasus Mountains and into a country called Absurdistan. At this point, the story abruptly shifts focus: no longer concerned with the Russian ruling class, it becomes a biting satire about U.S. oil interests in former Soviet republics. Absurdistan’s two major ethnic groups, the Sevo and the Svanï, are at war, and the Americans have found a way to make a fortune from their misfortune. Shteyngart, so gifted at inventing names for colleges and countries, does not bother to hide the identity of his corporate targets: Halliburton, Exxon, and BP all appear as themselves, and even Dick Cheney is granted a small cameo role.

It’s easy to draw any number of morals from Shteyngart's novel: America is addicted to power, not oil. Russia is trapped between a glorious past and a bleak future. The Caucasian republics are headed for all-out anarchy. But if Absurdistan offers one overarching lesson, it is that despite the fall of the Iron Curtain, the barrier between the Western world and the former Soviet Union remains opaque and inscrutable. That a single planet could bring forth gangsta rap and Pushkin's poetry, New York Laundromats and remote outposts on the Caspian Sea, is an endless source of mystery for Misha, who reflects in one of the book’s quieter moments:

The Soviet Union is gone, and the borders are as free and passable as they’ve ever been. And yet, when a Russian moves between the two universes, this feeling of finality persists, the logical impossibility of a place like Russia existing alongside the civilized world…. It was like those mathematical concepts I could never understand in high school: if, then. If Russia exists, then the West is a mirage; conversely, if Russia does not exist, then and only then is the West real and tangible. 

I interviewed Gary Shteyngart on June 1, during the Washington leg of his current book tour. Seated at the wine bar of the International Spy Museum, in a room decorated with Cyrillic writings, we talked about why Russia lost the Cold War and whether American fiction can survive.

Jennie Rothenberg

Caitlin Flanagan
Gary Shteyngart
(Photo by Marion Ettlinger)

The New York Times Book Review just ran a huge picture of your face. Have people started to recognize you when you walk down the street?

Sometimes they do, when I’m in New York. But I was actually much more recognizable before I shaved my goatee.

On the jacket of your first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, there was a memorable picture of you sitting on a curb, holding a bear cub on a leash.

I’d like to pose with another animal for my next book. I love the South American animal the capybara, the biggest rodent in the world. They had one in the Brooklyn Zoo, but he died, probably from loneliness.

I wanted to ask you about the passage you read at last night’s signing for Absurdistan. It was a particularly grisly chapter in which the main character, Misha Vainberg, arrives in New York and is forcibly circumcised by a group of Hasidic Jews. What made you choose that scene?

I read that section because I’ve memorized it almost by heart. Also, later on in the book, things get really complicated. I hate going to readings where the author starts out by saying, “Okay, let me give you the lowdown,” and then talks for ten minutes. Then he starts to read and you think, “What the hell is going on here?” But this is very simple. Fat man gets circumcised.

You told the audience members that their questions were tame. What kinds of responses were you expecting?

Yeah, it was a very mild question and answer session! Here, of all places, I expected a lot of State Department people to hate me, a lot of Azerbaijani people to hate me, a lot of Washington society people to hate me. I wanted all of them to come out for a public lynching, but it didn’t happen.

I know you left St. Petersburg at the age of seven, and now you go back for a visit every year. But there must have been a long gap between your arrival in New York in the 1970s and your first trip back to Russia.

The gap was pretty long. It was 1999 when I returned for the first time. I’d always been interested in going back, and in 1993 I wanted to do my junior year abroad at Moscow State University. But by this time, violence was already breaking out, and my mother said, “You’re crazy! They’ll kill you.” So I ended up going to Prague with my girlfriend at the time, and that experience became my first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. If I had been allowed to go to Russia, I wonder whether Absurdistan would have been my first book.

I visited Russia just once, during the summer of 1990. I met a Russian girl who took me to Arbat Street, the bohemian district of Moscow. All the young people were singing about freedom and shouting, “Die, communism, die!” The Russians I met expected the fall of the Soviet Union to be a victory for the people, like the Velvet Revolution in Prague. But in Absurdistan, you describe it as a crushing defeat. What happened between my visit in 1990 and your visit in 1999?

The problem is that the mentality of the people didn’t change at all—the mentality that waits for the next great leader to come along and show the way. The people in the elite didn’t change at all, either. They’re the same people, except they changed stripes. The ruler of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, is a perfect example. He sucked up to Brezhnev for so long. He was a stalwart communist secretary. Then the Soviet Union collapsed: “All right—now we’re nationalists. We’re going to war with Armenia!”

So the leaders were able to turn on a dime, and the people still don’t understand how democracy functions. If you ask the average Russian, “Do you want a free press, or do you want sausages?” he’ll say, “Sausages.” And what’s so shocking about that is that this is a fairly educated population. They have so much knowledge but a complete lack of understanding of what is in their best interests.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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