Elizabeth Kiem talks to Olga Slavnikova about her novel Light Head, forthcoming in English in 2013 [Maxim T. Yermakov being its main character], Russian contempory literature and Debut Literary Prize.
Elizabeth Kiem: Poor Yermakov! To suffer as a scapegoat only to wind up the involuntary martyr. Is this a comment on the Russian condition?
Olga Slavnikova: Yermakov is an absolutely new type of Russian. There’s a traditional Russian cult of suffering, both Russian Orthodoxy with its martyrs and Russian literature—just look at Dostoevsky. Suffering has been a necessary condition for spiritual growth. Yermakov doesn’t want to suffer or to sacrifice himself—he could care less about his spiritual growth. But he is important to me because he insists on his freedom and his rights—even just the right to live. To some extent Yermakov is fighting not just for himself but for the rights of every man, because at any moment some officer of a special committee can show up. Anyone can become a scapegoat, whether he is prepared to suffer or not.
EK: How does Russian magical realism differ from other sorts?
OS: It has to do with a particular Russian reality. Here, the very worst things happen but there is always a place for miraculous salvation. A Latin American novel is mythological; Russian magical realism is mystical.
EK: Is there really a chocolate factory outside Ryazan and does its chocolate truly taste of “sweet, bitty clay with the addition of soap?”
OS: I made up the chocolate factory outside of Ryazan, but there are a number of factories in the Moscow environs that produce chocolate under license of famous Western brands. Those products really do taste like clay. Real Russian chocolate is very good.
EK: “Tiny mother-of-pearl mouth” is a lovely phrase. What would you say is more important—a perfect adjective or a robust verb?
OS: Both. The verb is movement, action, the development of the subject. The adjective is the image, the meat of prose.
EK: I heard you say in June that no great Russian novel has a happy ending. Is this to say that a great Russian novel can not have a happy ending? Or only that there hasn’t been one yet?
OS: Not just Russian literature, but all world literature! Art works with the material of drama and tragedy. If life in Russia should at some point become easy and fulfilling, that doesn’t mean that we should expect a great novel with a happy ending. There is no direct connection between a good life and a positive outcome for a novel. I hope that some day Russian books will have bright conclusions—but that is not quite the same as a happy ending.
EK: Your Debut Foundation is bringing out scores of young writers. At what point did you decide that a focus on a new generation is critical for Russian literature?
OS: This happened in the late ‘90s. Publishing had become commercial. Shrouded by a background of crisis, young unknown authors had stopped being published entirely. There was the danger that Russian literature would come to an end soon, as old writers left and no new ones came forward. I saw before me, like a parade of ghosts, all these unwritten books—both mine and those of people whose names I didn’t even know. Happily, the philanthropic organization Pokolenie organized the Debut Prize, which I’ve directed since 2001. Every year we find the new talented authors, we translate the best of them into English and other languages, and promote this new Russian literature worldwide.