A Londoner who was born in Moscow

Interview with Zinovy Zinik
November 12, 2012

Martina Banfi from Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milantalks to Zinovy Zinik, 2005

MB First of all, why didn’t you stay in Israel and preferred to settle in London?

ZZ I enjoyed my time in Israel (I was directing a students theatre there) for it was a melting pot of different cultures, cross-road between East and West etc. I’ve written three books set in Jerusalem. But after a year I felt I am being slotted by the local media as a “Jewish” writer from Russia. I am a Russian Jew but I don’t like ethnic definitions in literature. And I wanted to see the world. My first novel was to be published by Albin Michelle in France so I used it as an excuse to come to Europe. The BBC job had followed and I decided to settle down in London. But I still feel some nostalgic affection for Israel, for its mixture of roughness, rudeness and highly-strung sensitivity.

MB What about the Russian community in London? When you arrived there wasn’t one, how has it changed during these years?

ZZ I have a couple of very close Russian émigré friends in London. But when it comes to friendship, it is not decided upon by the ethnic similarity. I have probably more English friends in Moscow than Russian ones in London nowadays. I wasn’t looking for any Russian community abroad and I’m not interested in such entities. Part of the attraction for me being in London was that it didn’t look like anything that I imagined it to be. If you emigrate from your own native land, you should look for some place and people from whom you can learn something new. England and Russia are worlds apart, that’s why Russians are so attracted to London. There are plenty of them in London; there is a Russian weekly, a small radio station in Russian, Russian shops and bars. I don’t belong to this crowd. When I emigrated, I didn’t have any hope to visit Russia again. Therefore, my whole life was geared to adapt myself to – and be adopted by – my new country. I think, I now look in the eyes of Russian newcomers to London like a kind of Red Émigré – in the way White Émigrés looked like to me when I had arrived in England.

MB You wrote: “We are not trees...unlike material objects we can become alien to our own natures. In that sense life is a permanent emigration...” So, how do you consider yourself now, almost 30 years after your leaving Russia?

ZZ I am a Londoner who was born in Moscow and had spent first half of his life in Russia, half in England. It looks like I live in a semi-transparent cage of a double-identity, as it were. One year in Jerusalem had affected me, too (I’ve become fluent in Hebrew). But that could be said about anyone who has lived long enough and went through some dramatic changes in one’s life, like people who were married many times, or changed their religion. To fall in love (or out of love) is the most intense form of exile.

MB What about the publishing of your work? Was it difficult at first?

ZZ I haven’t thought of it in Moscow because my prose was unpublishable in Soviet circumstances both stylistically (such as cut-ups or verbal collages made out of conversations amongst friends) and for political reasons. I’ve written my first “straight” novella in Jerusalem (The Notification). It was immediately published in a local monthly in Russian. I was accused by the émigré press of anti-Semitism and pornography. As a result of it, the French rights for my next three novels were bought in France by a prominent Parisian publisher Albin Michel, so my novels first appeared in French translations (the Russian originals were published only years later). The British editions had followed.

MB Why do you choose satire as a technique for describing the condition of the emigrée?

ZZ I wouldn’t call myself a satirical writer which implies a debunking of social or political systems. I am an author of comic novels and short stories. Tragicomic, perhaps. A person who came out into the street from his house having forgotten to put on his trousers and then realised that he had looked himself out with the keys inside. Such a person is definitely a comic figure. This is the type of a displaced person that you most frequently come across in my books.

MB What about your experience with the samizdat?

ZZ Practically none. I was sceptical about politicised literature as I saw in it a mirror image of Socialist Realism. On the other hand, the only Russian prose and poetry that I used to read in my Moscow days were in typed manuscripts of works written by friends or decadent authors of the 1920s. Letter writing was the most important occupation in my circle of fiends and by that I mean not letters of protest.

MB After the political changes in Russia your works have been published also there. Is there any difference between the reception of your work in England and the reception in Russia?

ZZ The writer wants to be judged by his ability to tell a story. I am navigating between two worlds and that leads to a certain misunderstanding of my prose on both sides. I was greeted with the great awe when I had come to Russia after fifteen years of absence in the 1990s. People were surprised that the writer of my idiosyncratic style and temperament could have survived in the foreign alien world. The more open Russia is, the more it is part of the Western civilisation, the better my stories will be understood here and there. I think I am treated kindly, with respect and attention both in Russia and England. Very famous but hardly known – some people know my name but haven’t read my books. My prose is a translation in one sense or another (see my novel “The Lord and the Gamekeeper” about it) and to appreciate a translation you have to be familiar with the reality behind it, a bit.

MB You write your work in Russian. Have you ever thought about the possibility of a novel in English?

ZZ I’ve started writing essays in English about twenty years ago. My first fiction written in English – short stories “Mind the Doors” and “No Cause for Alarm” - were published three years ago in my collection Mind the Doors. I am writing a novel in English now. We shall see what would come out of it. It is a relief to describe things in the words that correspond in their origin to the origins of events that I describe – in English about England. But more and more I feel that, perhaps, I should do opposite: to write in Russian about England and in English about Russia.

MB What do you think about the TV production of The Mushroom Picker?

ZZ It was hilarious to see how your fictional creation, words out of your mind, are translated into real objects, real people, mushrooms and British army vehicles. Then, you realise that they are becoming fictional, too. I don’t think that a surreal novel could be transformed into a surreal film, it would have worked better if the director Andy Wilson had pretended that this macabre nightmare is quite an ordinary life story. I feel very grateful, though, to all co-authors of the film (and insightful actors) for a unique experience. But I think an original was somehow lost in translation – apart from quite a few scenes – despite a very sharp and precise script by Liane Aukin.

MB What about your experience as a broadcaster for the BBC?

ZZ I broadcast in English more and more and this influences my prose more than one would have expected. Prose is getting born out of words’ noise in your head that you have to eventually organise into a narrative. This noise in my head consists of English vocabulary that grows every day. I am comfortable in front of the microphone because my voice (in English or in Russian) at those moments is getting disembodied – another metaphor of emigration, without pains of exile. I simply live on the air.

MB What do you think about the so-called “New Russians”, who are coming to live in London more and more?

ZZ The name “New Russians” relates, even phonetically, to nouveau riches in Russia who made dubious fortunes during the reckless privatisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are few and mainly ghastly. The rest of the new wave of migrants to Britain from Russia can’t be easily categorised. It is not a mob with one face. Some of the younger Russian people whom I met recently in London are, admirably, of the same mental stuff as mine after thirty years in Britain but without my phobias and foibles.

MB Have you ever thought, during these years, about a possible return to your motherland?

ZZ No. My first visit to Russia after fifteen years of absence had shown to me that the country was about to get changed beyond recognition. And it has. I don’t want to emigrate again. You shouldn’t repeat the same mistake (or the same success) twice. England is my home.