In Conversation with Dmitry Bykov

14 April 2010

Russia comes to London…

One of the great treats of writing The Gone-Away World was getting invited to go to Moscow.

Russia is a huge mystery to most people in Britain, and I’m no exception. For most of my childhood, it was an inimical mass just across the water; a place of ice, snow, and factories, and the home of a huge army of tanks and missiles which might at any moment be unleashed upon me. I grew up in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust: it was the 80s, and trigger fingers were itchy right up until Glasnost bit hard and the Wall came down. Certainly, we believed the apocalypse could come any day, and from time to time a flock of geese seen from the wrong angle on a radar screen really did launch the bombers.

It’s not much less mysterious to Brits today. Russia is complex and enormous, and our tendency to think of it as a place where people like us insist on behaving rather oddly doesn’t help. Here, though, is a chance to meet Russia head on…

I met Bykov in Moscow a little more than a year ago. My wife and I were guests of the Academia Rossica. We walked into a small, very Moscowish bar, a place with a long history of writers getting drunk, and there was a huge cry of glee: “MISTER HARKAWAY!”

Bykov is elemental; a huge man with a huge voice and huge passion. In Russia he’s basically a rockstar – radio host, biographer of Pasternak, novelist, poet, tv personality… he’s a kind of cross between Melvyn Bragg and Bob Geldoff; a cultural force who takes delight in causing outrage to enlighten. The fact that we haven’t heard of him in the UK is a sign of our rather marked parochialism with regard to people who don’t work in the English language.

Bykov is in London in part to promote his book, “Living Souls, and it’s very, very Bykovian. Typically, he’s already causing a huge row:

‘It’s going to be fiercely Russophobic and fiercely anti-Semitic,’ he said just before the novel’s publication. He went on, ‘It depicts both Russians and Jews as virus nations, which bring misfortune and decay to whatever they’re trying to colonize. It’s the best book I’ve ever written, it’s actually the best book that can possibly be written today, and it’s very, very funny.’ (link)

It’s hard to know whether that’s an uncertain translation of the nuance or whether it’s exactly what he means. He rejected allegations of anti-Semitism when the book came out in Russia, and of course is himself both Russian and Jewish. I can’t help but hear an echo of P G Wodehouse’s Vladimir Brusilov in the assertion that it’s the best possible book in the world – and since Bykov reads Wodehouse, that’s not so far-fetched. He has the erudition and wit of both his heritages in bucketloads, and a pride in them which is only partly offset by a profound discomfort with the way in which others who share them sometimes manifest their sense of identity. He’s an unreliable narrator of himself; what he says probably has as much to do with what he wants you to be thinking as what he actually believes. All the same, there’s no question that “Living Souls” is caustic and challenging.

Russian discussion does not deal in small change; when I was in Moscow, one of the first questions I was asked was whether I thought the black flag of Islam would ever fly above the House of Commons. (I think that’s a reference to a speech by Omar Bakri Muhammad.) So when I speak to Bykov next week (Thursday 22nd April at Waterstone’s in Hampstead) it’s safe to say we won’t be talking about punctuation. I’m also hoping we’ll get some lively questions from the floor. So please, please come along!

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