May 11, 2003
Behind the Iron curtain: mediocrity, lies
By Connie Ogle
When Gary Shteyngart was a small boy in the Soviet Union, his grandmother would commission stories from him. He'd write an impassioned tale about Lenin, and she would pay him: ''Slices of cheese for every page I wrote,'' he says.
Grandmother would need quite a bit of cheese these days, after the success of Shteyngart's first novel. The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Riverhead, $14 in paper) is the deadpan, breezy, hilarious story of young Vladimir Girshkin -- ''part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half)'' -- a painfully neurotic, hopelessly unhappy Russian Jew born in Leningrad, now ekeing out a dull, meager existence processing immigrants in Manhattan. Vladimir feels he belongs nowhere, until a series of unsavory events causes him to flee to Eastern Europe and Prava (think Prague), the ''Paris of the 90s.'' There he falls in with badly dressed mobsters, substance-addled expatriates and fiercely loyal Socialist grannys.
Shteyngart's family emigrated to the United States when he was 7, and he carries Vladimir's loneliness deep in his bones. ''You never really feel at home anywhere,'' he says. ''Whenever anybody speaks a foreign language I'm comfortable. I'm comfortable on planes between countries. And in New York. Here, if you're a native-born American you're an anamoly.''
Shteyngart, who reads Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, should feel right at home in Miami.
Q: How well do you remember your time in Russia?
A: I have a great memory of early childhood. The giant statue of Lenin, all the monumentalist Stalinist architecture. And the Hermitage Museum. I remember a gold mechanized peacock that screamed at you and dancing mushrooms. It was all very elaborate. I had a really good early childhood. . . . The state really coddled you. Parents weren't stressed out. They had these lazy jobs where nobody did very much.
Q: What was it like coming to the United States?
A: I came during the war in Afghanistan, and there was a lot of anti-Russian sentiment. In people's minds I was a Russian and thereby a Communist. There were all these TV shows and movies about the Soviet Union invading. . . . It was akin to growing up Muslim these days, where you see all the evildoers portrayed with Arabic accents. I think in a way I rebelled. I became a young Republican. I worked for George Bush Sr.'s campaign.
Q: That's a big leap.
A: Lenin to Reagan is a short hop. The hero worship is easy. I come from a society of hero worship. In Russia you supported the Soviet system or were deadset against it. We were primed to believe in something in a very big way. Russians are always looking for a leader, someone with a strong hand, and Reagan seemed to have a strong hand.
Q: Vladimir's parents assimilate easily; their son doesn't. Is that your experience?
A: My parents already had a culture behind them, and they had simple goals: find good jobs; make sure I had a good education. These are not goals that are hard to achieve in America. There was nostalgia for how things were, but often it's hardest for the kids. Kids come now, and they're not as different as we were. Now there's a western element there. You can watch MTV Russia. But for us it was another planet.
Q: What sort of response has the book gotten?
A: I've had a great response from people of my generation. The reason I wrote this book was that nobody had done it. Every ethnic group has had a young man's novel, and yet Russians of my generation have had no novels. A lot of people cite parental pressures . . . There's pressure to go into law or medicine, like there is with Vladimir. But I think maybe it's the culture of holding these things in. You don't talk about the pain or how you're ostracized in a country so different to the traditions you believed in. I believed in Lenin, and what a shock it was when my father told me it was all a lie. You believe in your country, then all of a sudden the curtain is pulled away and you see what's behind it. After that you end up not believing in anything.
Q: There have been quite a few novels in the past year set in Eastern Europe: Aleksander Hemon's Nowhere Man, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, Arthur Phillips' Prague. Why the interest?
A: I think Jews feel the need to reconnect with Eastern Europe. And there's a fascination with Russia, which was a formidable enemy and melted away with no real consequences for the people outside the Soviet Union. Now we have a new enemy. I'm looking forward to seeing novels from young Muslim immigrants.
Q: What's it like to visit Russia now?
A: I long for my American roots! It's a country of vast disorder. It's depressing. Everything is in Moscow. Petersburg is really poor, very decrepit. There's a 300th anniversary coming up, so they've painted the facades jaunty colors, but inside it's the same garbage.
Q: At the end of the book, when Vladimir has settled in the Midwest, has he succeeded or failed?
A: For him it's not the worst thing that could happen. These are the compromises people make. . . . People do give up their dreams very easily. Mediocrity is something that people will compromise toward if they realize the other option is fatal. They want to find a simpler, quiet life.
Connie Ogle is The Herald's book editor.