From Moscow’s hidden tunnels to Russia’s top literary prizes

Interview with Alexander Ilichevsky
April 9, 2012
By Phoebe Taplin

Like the wandering hero of his 2007 novel, “Matisse”, Ilichevsky was a theoretical physicist who abandoned science. He also has an urge to explore everything, from mountains to rail depots. The main character in his latest novel, published this year, is a successful businessman who moves to a quiet town on the Oka River to paint. So far only short extracts from Ilichevsky’s novels are available in English.

He is currently based in Moscow at the heart of a literary renaissance, but Ilichevsky’s wanderlust started young. He was born in 1970 in the city of Sumgayit, on the Absheron peninsula in Azerbaijan. His maternal grandfather, whose family of exiled religious sectarians had settled in a village on the Persian border, helped build a military aerodrome that made American Cobra fighters. Ilichevsky also sees his father’s Jewish heritage as belonging historically to “the edges of existence”, tracing his paternal ancestry back through times when Jews were forced to live “beyond the pale”. His memories of these influential childhood summers are of “overflowing sunshine, the bitter taste of the sea where I swim and the smell of oil oozing from the seams of the steep slopes on the way to Baku.”

Ilichevsky moved to the suburbs near Moscow as a teenager, when his family was forced to leave Azerbaijan. He graduated from a technological institute affiliated to Moscow University and then emigrated to continue his studies in Israel in 1991 and to work in scientific research in the U.S. from 1994. In San Francisco he studied programming with a view to funding his emerging interest in writing, at first as a poet. “I started writing poetry,” he said, “and found it brought me no less pleasure than solving scientific problems.” He sees connections between science and literature; both of them seek to “elevate our world view, our understanding of the universe”.

He moved to Sacramento with Intel, traveled round California, and lived for a time with a Moscow friend in Alabama. “I think of America with warmth and gratitude,” he said. “In retrospect, the U.S. seems like one big library because I spent a lot of time in university libraries … in American libraries I could find books in Russian which in Moscow we could not even dream of. All the writers of the Silver Age and the literary avant-garde were on the shelves! It was delicious.” The only downsides to Ilichevsky’s sojourn in the States were homesickness and a need to reconnect with Russian cultural life which eventually drew him back to the motherland; his most successful novels so far draw on memories of childhood and of young adulthood in chaotic, post-Soviet Moscow.

For less than a year in the shifting early 1990s, Ilichevsky says, it was possible to visit Moscow’s most secret places: condemned sculpture studios lined with plaster busts of generals, or hidden courtyards full of Mosfilm’s fairytale movie sets, wagon cities behind railway stations, or the tunnels of the mysterious Metro-2. In Stalin’s time this huge secret network of passages was supposedly constructed underneath the public Moscow metro system and some sections of tunnel definitely exist. Rumored to be longer than the official metro and up to 200 meters deep, Metro-2 has become the stuff of urban legend.

In “Matisse”, these locations are crucial. Ilichevsky said that he had explored “all Moscow’s unusual places … including underground Moscow” and explained that, during the years of crisis, public sector guards briefly vanished and these forbidden areas were left open to curious visitors. “For a young man of 20, it was difficult to resist the chance to explore underground” he says. “I once went down an abandoned tunnel where the metro was being built near the Soviet Army Theatre”.

One of the delights of “Matisse” is its visceral connection with the city, its sense of adventure rooted in real locations. “He sank his harpoon into Moscow and pursued it – it was his Leviathan,” the author writes of his scientist-turned-tramp protagonist, Korolyov. The sense of a Moby Dick style quest is beautifully counterpoised by Korolyov’s geographically random wanderings.
The critic, Lev Danilkin, wrote of “Matisse”, which won the Russian Booker prize in 2007: “Any qualified Western literary agent, should he happen to glance at a synopsis of this novel, which is concerned with an exodus from metaphysical bondage, would immediately and unhesitatingly consign it to the wastepaper basket”. The statement reinforces a noticeable (and possibly widening) divide between commercialized, Anglophone fiction and the complex, cerebral books that currently win prizes in Russia.

Of his many awards, Ilichevsky says the 2010 “Big Book” prize was the most personally significant. “The Persian”, the novel that won it, is the third part of the same tetralogy as “Matisse”, and is an even more uncompromising tome. The author describes it as “a big novel about childhood, about the Absheron peninsula, about the Russian futurist, Khlebnikov, and … the metaphysics of oil”.

As with so many contemporary Russian writers, the past and future of Russia itself are often underlying themes. Years of living overseas have influenced Ilichevsky’s work. “It is impossible to understand or fully describe a system, while you’re still part of it,” he says. “Russia is more clearly visible from a distance, and not only because it occupies one eighth of the earth’s surface.” He adds that it is no wonder Gogol wrote “Dead Souls” in Rome.

Ilichevsky feels that the interaction between world literature and the “totally original” Russian tradition is mostly thanks to Tolstoy, whose books became popular abroad. He pays tribute to numerous British and American, South African and Indian writers who have added to the greatness of literature in English: “Faulkner and Coetzee, Rushdie and Frost, Auden and Bellow, Roth and Naipaul, Barnes and Golding”. Among Russian writers, he singles out Andrei Platonov as “a great, globally significant writer whose work has yet to be fully recognized by world civilization”. It is easy to see how the styles of these very different writers, with their muscular minimalism or allusive virtuosity, have affected Ilichevsky’s own prose. His work is also reminiscent of Beckett’s surrealist ramblings or (more recently) the psycho-geographies of Iain Sinclair.

Recent political events in Russia lead Ilichevsky to ask how a better form of government can be legitimately implemented. He has an “aesthetic” feeling, “no matter how irrational … that government should be more honest, more intelligent and beautiful”. The posing of complex and vital questions forms the basis of Ilichevsky’s dense and interesting novels. It is exploration and the search for truth that interest him, rather than a didactic presentation of answers. “It’s a poor question that can be completely answered,” he says.

In his next novel, Ilichevsky will return to the early 1990s. “I am currently finishing a novel… about why morality collapsed in Russia and how it has shaped my country as it is today”. It sounds like a suitably intractable topic for this novelist’s enquiring mind and inventive prose. “But in fact”, he adds as an afterthought “it is a tragic kind of ‘love story’”. (Source: Russia beyond the headlines)