Thursday 23 September 2021

Finding Yourself Under a Waterfall: A Conversation with Andrey Filimonov

Tomsk, Siberia

 

ANDREY FILIMONOV comes from Tomsk, the 400-year-old “Athens of Siberia” and center of White Russian resistance during the Russian Civil War. His highly acclaimed novels Retsepty sotvoreniya mira (World Creation Recipes, 2018) and his debut work Golovastik i svyatye (Manikin And The Saints, 2016) deals not only with the historical legacy of his country and family but with the culture and legends of Siberia. Translators Anne Fisher and Richard Coombes cover the writer’s experience of post-Soviet life, his influences, where fantasy and reality meet in his work and Siberian life, and many other topics.


 

Anne Fisher and Richard Coombes: Andrey, tell us something about external influences on your writing. The times, the places …

Andrey Filimonov: External factors are challenges that have to be met. You frequently find yourself resisting the influence of the ‘environment’. It interests me that an era will have its own external content, but the structure of ‘challenge: response’ remains the same. For example, in the past, people complained about television but watched it every night. These days, the whipping-boy is Facebook, which no one is forced to use. That’s why in Recipes I allowed myself to use modern ‘hipster’ language to describe the life of Soviet people in the 1940s and 1970s. It’s a conscious reference to the immutability of human nature, which simply adapts to time and circumstances.

AF & RC: What about the influence of politics?

Filimonov: My youth was a present from Mikhail Gorbachev. I left school in 1986, the year Perestroika began in the USSR, and we all witnessed a very rapid process of the decriminalization of things that had been forbidden. In three or four years, Soviet people had to master the entire twentieth century, from Freud to the Rolling Stones, from Russian symbolism to European post-modernism. It was like suddenly finding yourself under a waterfall. A mind-blowing information overload.

AF & RC: Our guess is you found some quirky way of expressing your new freedom, out there in far-away snow-bound Tomsk.

Filimonov: Well, I wasn’t just a spectator. Tomsk was closed to foreigners until 1991, if you remember. My friends and I made the first street performance art ever seen on Siberian soil. We collected scrap metal, painted it in bright colours, and constructed abstract sculptures, which the local hooligans destroyed more or less at once. We had a funeral for avant-garde art. The coffin was carried out of the art museum to the accompaniment of an orchestra and then burned in the square. We put on Dada poetry concerts. Lots of things that like that.

AF & RC: The ‘dashing 90s’ must have been quite something, then.

Filimonov: Not really. People were very poor, and art led a miserable existence. Although I did publish my first book of poetry, The Moon at the Back of Nowhere.

AF & RC: What prompted you to write Recipes? Were you consciously looking for a certain ‘theme’ or ‘direction’ after Manikin?

Filimonov: I started writing Recipes at the end of 2016 under the working title Greeting Cards. My grandparents had left me their flat, and there was a closet in there full of fifty years of postcards. My grandfather was a great collector, and never threw anything away. As well as the postcards, the room was crammed with records, certificates, letters, badges, stamp albums, wine labels, newspapers and magazines, instructions for household appliances, the lot. He’d boxed it all up and the whole thing took up several cubic metres of space. The postcards were from friends and relatives all over the Soviet Union, and my grandfather had sorted them thematically: New Year, birthday, wedding, festivals such as November 7 and May 1.

AF & RC: The ending of Recipes is very striking. It’s like a couple of personal trips that counterpoint the journeys made by the characters in the rest of the narrative—trips which gave you the energy and other inner resources to write the book. What can you tell us about that—without spoilers, of course.

Filimonov: The end was written a few years before the rest, as a stand-alone story. The hero meets his late grandparents during a psychedelic trip. I’m not here to advocate LSD. It’s more like my personal version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, based on real events. If you want to rediscover lost love, you have to make a journey, to hell or wherever, or perform a reboot, to describe it in modern terms.

AF & RC: Does your work as a journalist in any way feed in to your fiction?

Filimonov: Journalism can sometimes be useful. Dostoevsky found plots and characters in criminal chronicles. But I don’t think we should place too much trust in ‘life as it really is’. It’s only when the miracle of fiction fertilises the bare facts that literary prose is born.

AF & RC: What are you working on at the moment?

Filimonov: A travelogue novel titled Пляс нигде, which is being published this month, in which the protagonist, a journalist who bears some resemblance to me, makes a round-the-world trip (Siberia-Europe-America and back). I started it before all this, and then it turned out that travel writing in self-isolation is easy and enjoyable. A sort of homage to a bygone era of the commercial consumption of space.

AF & RC: Can we take a little dip into Manikin? The critic Natasha Romanova said of it: ‘In this story, we see an erosion of the line between the human and the non-human, between creepy myth and even scarier reality.’ Meaning that fantasy for you is a device. What were you aiming at here? Or were you just having fun (and amusing us along the way)?

Filimonov: The life described in Manikin seems fantastic only when viewed from a cosy urban environment—the office, a café, the metro, a workstation, a couch. For the inhabitants of the village of Bezdorozhnaya, this is what everyday life is like. I’ve seen with my own eyes the remains of an aeroplane built by a village craftsman using blueprints from a Soviet technical magazine. Or you remember the passage where locals attach engines to the undersides of iron beds and run the beds on rails, like railway handcars. That’s ‘life as it really is’. In the late 90s/early 2000s I saw an abandoned narrow-gauge track in the woods along which the locals had ridden on beds with wheels. I wouldn’t have had the imagination to make such a thing up. And if I had made it up, I’d say it was rubbish. But I saw it: a bizarre slice of real life in the taiga. All I had to do was find the right words to describe it.

AF & RC: Who do you write for—yourself? Your notional ‘reader’? Posterity? It sometimes feels as if you’re writing for people who don’t really want to think about the dark sides of Russian imperialistic and Soviet history, and to attract them you have to add a ‘spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down’. Except that your readers are adults, so it’s not sugar you’ve added but something else, much more powerful and less sweet than sugar. Narrative moonshine, story alcohol, something like that.

Filimonov: You’re right. ‘Narrative moonshine’ is a felicitous image. I’m from the punk rock generation. Any ideology and all rules imposed by others turn me right off. I write for people who cherish individual freedom, for people who are repulsed by what’s happening in the world today. Putin and his palaces and imperial eagles. America, where everyone is so uptight about words you’re ‘not supposed’ to say out loud. The mainstream book market. Censorship on social media. The endless number of social groups parading their hurt feelings. The ideology of the oppressed bidding to control everyone else. We’ve already been through this in Russia: ‘he who was nothing shall become everything.’ It’s not true; he won’t become everything, but he will reduce the rest to insignificance. Ressentiment, as Nietzsche called it, causes mass psychosis and spawns dreams of a great past or a great future. All of this is alien not only to me, but also to the many people (some of whom I know personally) to whom I address my books.

AF & RC: That brings us rather neatly to your language. So much energy—and so unpredictable. Translating you, we’re in a near-permanent state of enjoying one surprise while wondering what’s coming next.

Filimonov: In Recipes I wrote about how my grandmother, a teacher of Russian language and literature, tormented me with rules from when I was tiny.

‘People don’t say that!’

‘Yes they do.’

‘All right, they do, but they’re wrong.’

It turns out that 99% of the population speak and write wrong. And nothing bad happens to them—no thunderbolt comes hurtling down from the sky. They even breathe new life into the mother tongue. Being a contrary type, I’ve always been interested in linguistic deviations. Exceptions to the rules that have a dash of Benedict Erofeev’s ‘impertinence and intimation’. The impertinence to oppose the rules and an intimation of the hidden possibilities of words.

AF & RC: There’s so much linguistic depth in your work. You enjoy setting us puzzles.

Filimonov: I love Slavic word games. The same root signifies ugliness in Polish and beauty in Russian. A Russian who wants cucumber salad in the Czech Republic has to order ‘salad with dog-ends’. ‘Way in’ is ‘toilet’, ‘way out’ is ‘east’. It’s as if our ancestors took the same words for different things out of spite. But here’s an interesting thing. The word for ‘paradise’ sounds the same in all Slavic speech.

AF & RC: Can you talk about where you get your characters’ voices from? Do you collect special words? Do you travel to places just to hear the way people talk?

Filimonov: The question of characters’ voices is key. If I can’t hear the character’s voice, I don’t know what words they’ll use or how they’ll describe what’s going on. Manikin emerged largely from overheard conversations. I was on a train with two women next to me, chatting. They had men in the army: one’s husband, the other’s father. The men kept being sent on trips, including to hot spots such as Chechnya. The women were conversing about their difficult lives. I was so fascinated by their conversation and the rhythm of their speech that I began to write down phrases in a notebook. That’s how Kocheryzhka was born. The image of the ‘Russian woman’, whose menfolk are always at war. Not necessarily a real war. War can be a metaphor for male weakness and the desire to escape from the problems of real life into imaginary worlds of heroism.

AF & RC: What about Manikin himself?

Filimonov: I met the prototype of Manikin even earlier, about ten years before I wrote the book. He was a retired policeman, sharp-tongued, an original thinker, and ‘head of a dead village’. Meaning a village that officially no longer existed, but in reality there were houses somewhere in the taiga in which people with nowhere else to go lived illegally, hiding from the law or from bandits—who are also one of the authorities in Russia, maybe the fourth or fifth, but real enough.

When I first met him, I was immediately won over by his elemental anarchism, his mocking attitude towards any authority. We went off in his car into the forest and he fetched a jerry can of wine out of the boot and said, ‘We’ve left the last cop the other side of the river. This is our land. Drink up!’

This feeling of ‘our land’, land which formally belongs to the state but where the people are not subject to anyone, is characteristic of the inhabitants of the remoter parts of Siberia, and probably any out-of-the-way place.

I have no illusions about life in the countryside. But it was important for me to understand these people, who live in this infinite, boundless space, which they themselves have to comprehend and populate with stories. So I tried to give a voice to as many storytellers as possible, to put together a choir of voices. Sometimes discordant and repulsive, but always true.

I never went in search of these voices on purpose. I’m extremely grateful to television, where I worked for about ten years, for sending me on business trips to some pretty unlikely backwaters. I met people who were so far removed from our usual discourse that I couldn’t always understand what they were even saying. You had to listen very carefully, and suddenly their lives would stop resisting attempts to understand them and talk about them. It was an invaluable experience.


Read more work by Andrey Filimonov:

 

An exclusive excerpt from Filimonov’s award winning novel, appearing for the first time in English in B O D Y

Another exclusive excerpt of Filimonov’s novel in B O D Y

 

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