MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In 1979 Gary Shteyngart came to the United States as a seven year old, a Soviet Jewish kid who left behind a blissful childhood for the lot of a depressive self described nerd in New York City. He has grown up to be a very funny novelist. He writes about places that are real, about places that are imaginary and about that curious region in between, places that used to be in the Soviet Union. For example the setting of his new novel ABSURDISTAN.
GARY SHTEYNGART: ABSURDISTAN may remind certain readers of certain readers of certain countries in the Caucasus, such as Azerbaijan or Georgia. Absurdistan is a very oil rich place. It's run partly by Halliburton and partly by other oil corporations and it has kind of a kleptocractic elite in charge. There is an ethic conflict going on but the ethnic conflict is really just a pretext for different ethnic groups to try to seize the assets of the state. So ABSURDISTAN is almost nonfiction if you want to look at it that way.
SIEGEL: Yes, it does sound like a documentary to some so for. One of the nice touches is that the Russians don't have an H, I guess, so they'll say gamberger for hamburger and Halliburton comes out Galliburton.
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. It was a funny story. I was sitting around the Hyatt Hotel in Azerbaijan and they have this bar where all the hookers hang out. So this one hooker came up to me and said, hello, I am hooker, you know. And I said hi, nice to meet you in Russian and she said, you are Galliburton? And I said I'm just a Russian writer. She said ah, Russian writer, pooh! She actually spit at me and I was so offended. I thought this is when a Galliburton executive is valued over a Russian writer then we really have quite an inversion of values around here.
SIEGEL: What inspired to you the idea of ABSURDISTAN? Is this a case where the title and the idea of some anonymous former Soviet Republic came before the actual book?
SHTEYNGART: Well, I'd spent, when I was young, I grew up in Leningrad but we would summer in this place called Sukumi, which is a resort town in the republic of Georgia called Abkhazia, and when I was young, going to Sukumi was the highlight of my life because unlike Leningrad, it was this warm, beautiful place where you could eat bananas. We had no bananas in Leningrad.
So ABSURDISTAN kind of started coming to mind as I watched this part of the world become destitute and become also riven by all these ethnic conflicts. I knew I had to go back and write about it. And I think a lot of this book sort of came together in my first trip back to Georgia. I was walking down the street and some guy came up and said hey, you look like a big Jew. And I said, yeah, I'm a pretty big Jew, you know. He said, you know, the Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land. They're our brothers. Your enemy is my enemy. My mother will be your mother. Oh said, oh, thank you, that's very sweet.
Then he took out a very big knife and proceeded to mug me and said, our mother needs money. She's in the hospital. So this whole experience of first being hugged and then mugged seemed to me like a very appropriate metaphor for really what had happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when people expected democracy to come over and hug them. What happened in the end for most people in Russia was the knife came out and people got mugged. They lost everything they had. They lost their money. They lost their sense of cultural identity and belonging.
SIEGEL: Now you are the product of a rather small wave of migration actually compared to what happened a hundred years earlier of, as we said then, Soviet Jews who got out from Leningrad your family?
SHTEYNGART: I'm from Leningrad yes. I'm from south central Leningrad actually.
SIEGEL: Your earliest years were spent there, so.
SHTEYNGART: Yes, I spent, and they were very, actually my earliest years were in some ways my most literate years because when I was four or five my grandmother taught me how to write Russian and she commissioned little pieces from me. Little fairy tales. When I was four or five I wrote a fairy tale about Lenin and his best friend, this magical goose named Goose Martin.
And Lenin and the goose flew up to Finland to try to convert the Finns to Soviet Socialism and in the end there was a terrible fight and Lenin eats the goose and things go awry. But the nice thing is my grandmother paid me in cheese, little pieces of Soviet cheese, for every page I wrote. So in the beginning I realized that this could be quite a remunerative career and to this day when I write I eat a nice piece of Gouda usually. A nice Camembert.
SIEGEL: Just to bring back the sense of encouragement from your grandmother.
SIEGEL: But your story runs counter to the standard immigrant tale in that you leave what for you was an idyllic childhood in Communist Leningrad and come to I gather a rather isolated, lonely existence in America.
SHTEYNGART: It was a very bleak existence in America. I think primarily because once you crossed the Shteyngart front porch, you entered Russia and my parents did not speak English in the house. We did not have television. Everything was books and Russian books at that.
So I grew up reading Turgenev, Chekov, Tolstoy--all the writers that would be so influential to me and when I stepped out of the house, I was living in a world that was completely different. I was going to this very mediocre Hebrew school where the talk of the town was, I mean you don't expect little kids to talk about Turgenev but there was quite a wonderful anti-intellectual stance there.
SIEGEL: The Soviet Jews who settled in New York, it always struck me were among the most deracinated, uprooted people imaginable and in a way I find it very refreshing, your comic vision coming out of that. So there is a Jewish sense of humor that actually survives the Soviet Jewish experience.
SHTEYNGART: I think so. I think so. Some of my favorite writers, American writers of the 20th century have been American Jews. Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, they're the giants as far as I'm concerned. But I think also what draws me to them is the sense of humor, which I find oddly reminiscent of Russian Jewish humor. This very kind of humor at the edge of the grave. Laughing at things that are not funny in any way, you know. I think absurd situations, which is something that Saul Bellow did so well, and embellishing and making literature out of them, that's something I really want to do.
SIEGEL: Now you have to describe the national liberation movement that takes over Absurdistan in your novel.
SHTEYNGART: Well the liberation movement is called the SCROD. The State Committee for the Restoration of Order and Democracy. And they are saddled of course with this fishy sounding name to begin with, the SCROD.
The SCROD are trying to cuddle up to America, to Halliburton, to the State Department, and they're trying to make their case to why they should be the dominant group. It reminded me of this very absurd situation when I was in a certain country. I'm not going to name which one, but I was hanging out with the Vice Privatization Minister, I think that was his title, and his cronies and the country had just become one of the 20 poorest countries in the world and they were celebrating. I said what are you celebrating. They said this is great. Now they're going to give us this money from the NGOs and we're going to steal all of it. It's wonderful. Then he said, look, Gary. We want you to help us because you speak English and Russian and because you're a Jew, so you must be very greedy and clever. I said I'm not that greedy or clever. And he said, what do you want?
I said I just want them to publish my book and for people to read my book. He'll said, we'll publish your book. I said but I already have a publisher in the states and then he said very honestly, he said, we'll publish so that people will read it. And I think that's just a great Soviet line.
SIEGEL: Well Gary Shteyngart, thank you very much for talking with us.
SHTEYNGART: Thank you. Pleasure.
SIEGEL: You can read an excerpt from Gary Shteyngart's novel ABSURDISTAN and hear him tell his favorite Leonid Brezhnev joke at our web site, NPR.org.