Oleg Pavlov is one of the few new Russian writers published in English. So why is he such a reluctant figurehead?
Oleg Pavlov’s life has given him plenty to write about: he worked as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s secretary, guarded a military prison in Kazakhstan, spent time in a psychiatric ward and won Russia’s most prestigious literary prize. And now Pavlov, one of Russia’s most respected writers, is being published in English for the first time. The novel in question, Captain of the Steppe, was written nearly two decades ago, when Pavlov was just 24 years old.
It can be surprising for foreign readers to discover that Russian writing is flourishing and diverse; as far as most are concerned, Russian literature centres on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov and stops somewhere around Doctor Zhivago or The Master and Margarita. But the past decade has seen a literary renaissance in Russia, with new authors producing ambitious works across all genres.
Pavlov is a crucial, but somewhat reluctant, part of that renaissance. His work, which combines gritty naturalism with elegiac nostalgia, sits oddly alongside the self-consciously cerebral novels of more typical prize winners.
Of late, contemporary Russian literature has produced a bewildering number of dystopias, with settings ranging from feudal barbarism to hi-tech nightmare. Tatyana Tolstaya, a critic and great-grand-niece of Tolstoy, created one of the earlier post-apocalyptic scenarios in 2000’s The Slynx, where books are banned and mutant humans live in huts eating mice. In Vladimir Sorokin’s 2011 futuristic fairy tale, Day of the Oprichnik, the secret police rape and burn all day, and relax with psychedelic pornography.
Pavlov's more straightforward narratives are also at odds with prevailing trends towards postmodern experiment. Ludmila Ulitskaya's 2001 novel Daniel Stein, Interpreter, based on a real biography, mixes letters, articles, transcripts and guidebook entries to create a work the author describes as “half documentary and half art”. And Mikhail Shishkin has also won several awards with his patchwork texts, full of neologisms, wordplay and literary allusions.
"I do not like modern Russian literature … it's all a lie"
Despite — or probably because of — his uniqueness, Pavlov has become one of Russia’s best-known authors, rooting himself in the satirical tradition of Gogol and Platonov. Bluntly dismissing the idea of a literary renaissance, Pavlov says, “I do not like modern Russian literature … it's all a lie. All I see is a parody. Miserable, treacherous, despicable … I am alone. Those close to me are all gone. I'm a man from a completely different era. My renaissance, to call it that, was Andrei Tarkovsky and Dürer, Van Gogh, and Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Faulkner: a renaissance whose ideal was not beauty as such, but faith in man.”
Pavlov’s first novel, Captain of the Steppe, is now finally available in English, with translations of more of his novels due to follow later this year. “It is the story of Russia,” he says, speaking of once being “dedicated to the mystery” of a literary legacy. “But I was so young,” he adds. “I wrote it as a blind man … I do not remember what and why I wrote then.”
Captain of the Steppe is in some ways a portrait of lost time. It was first published in 1994 and nominated for the Russian Booker Prize the following year. Marcel Theroux, who introduces the English version, writes that it “can be read as a satire on the absurdity and chaos of the decaying Soviet empire”. Ultimately he says, it is a “disquieting and comic elegy for the foot soldiers of a vanished nation”.
"I love life. A city is its faces"
The novel is set in desolate Karabas on the Kazakh steppe; the vast emptiness of the landscape and the claustrophobia of the camp are equally disturbing. It draws heavily on Pavlov’s own experiences during military service in the same camp that is immortalised in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Encounters with hunger, frostbite, vermin and overflowing latrines are saved from grimness by Pavlov’s light touch.
“I was obsessed by Asia,” says Pavlov. “You could describe the book as a nonfictional account, but the characters are invented.” The novel is populated by grotesque cameos like the captain’s eternally drunk, second-in-command Ilya Peregud. His “heart and soul ran on vodka”, which he could distill from “rice, wheat, rotten apples, wood chips, old women’s headscarves or sour cabbage soup”.
In contrast with the steppe villages of his first novel, “covered in hoarfrost and immersed in the tall silence of the heavens”, Pavlov grew up in Moscow. “Even if you were born in Moscow, you cannot see and understand it,” he says. “It is so huge. There is the Moscow of the nobility, there is Stalin’s Moscow, Khrushchev’s, Putin's. The city is always in the hands of the rulers. That's the Russian way.” Pavlov was born in 1970 on Moscow’s Prospekt Mira, one of the vast radial roads leading out of the city. His parents separated during his childhood, occasioning a move to the “working-class suburbs”, where his mother raised him and his sister. “It was a dull corner,” he says. “I only saw Red Square for the first time when I was 16.” But for Pavlov, the energy of a city is in its people, not its historic buildings, and he has little interest in sightseeing. “I love life. A city is its faces,” he says. “It is better to sit in a London pub — you’ll find out and understand more there.”
The London Book Fair in April brought Pavlov to the UK and he is keen to compare it with his native city. Whereas Moscow is “my whole life”, London is an impressionistic patchwork: “bronchitis, whiskey, a maze”. For him, pubs encapsulate “the English soul”. “Fish, chips, beer — it’s been like this for centuries, right?” he says.
“Moscow is not a Russian city,” he continues. “It’s Asian. And the restaurants in Moscow are Asian … I described the Moscow of my childhood in my novel In Godless Lanes and Moscow as it is now in my last novel, Asystole [shortlisted for the Russian Big Book Prize and due out in English later this year]. But the truth is that I was born, I live and I will die in Moscow.”
"I have always been afraid of going crazy"
A head injury during military service left Pavlov in hospital, where he spent more than a month on a psychiatric ward. His 1997 quasi-autobiographical novel, Matyushin's Case is based on this episode. Stefan Tobler, founder of the publisher And Other Stories, responsible for Captain of the Steppe, has plans to get the book translated into English. It’s not a time Pavlov wants to talk much about, but he says: “This is a special story. I was in the section for murderers. But never in my life have I experienced such peace. I didn’t kill anyone but I pretended to be a murderer to get there. I didn't have a choice — it was that or suicide.” Sanity is a recurrent theme for Pavlov. “I'm not a healthy person, probably from birth, but I'm an artist,” he says. “What more can I say? The energy of creation is psychic energy.” Later, he describes Ian Appleby, who translated Captain of the Steppe, as a “regular guy” and therefore a good interpreter of his work. “I have always been afraid of going crazy,” he says. “So this translation needed a grounded man like him.”
Winning the Russian Booker prize with his 2002 sequel to Captain of the Steppe (the second part in what is now the Tales of Latter Days trilogy) helped and encouraged Pavlov, who was then in his early thirties. He did not set out to write a trilogy, but, “like Faulkner I wrote what I wrote without a plan ... I could not tear myself away from the images of Asia ... The path to heroism, the path to crime, the path to sainthood; all that makes up the path of Russian history.”