A short note, for those who read my last post: I made my goal, reducing my novel 10.2% down to 124,400 words. Not merely a slimming — at least ten passages, or one every 15,000 words, needed a complete rewrite just to make sense, and in some cases had to grow. It was a grueling process, and I was exhausted for several days after. But it’s done.
Russia haunts my novel. I say haunts because I only gave it a short nod, but it wound up reappearing, unintentionally but naturally, in surprising ways.
My earliest inspiration, my reassurance that I could use fantasy to describe the heart of a real people, was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a satiric romp in which the Devil holds a grand ball in the heart of an atheistic society. Now it is viewed by those who lived under communism as a true document, a history of the soul’s sadness in those times. If only I could find a way to tell my times through that same lens, I thought, and my story was born.
I only meant to use Russia in my novel as a light on my character Gabriel — on his rigidity, his desire for order and clarity, his deep angry passion; his refusal to drink alcohol, forbidding himself the only Serenity Prayer that Russians allow; that Gabriel learned Russian at birth, educated by Cold Warriors for the world they expected to continue until Armageddon — until the Wall fell, making Gabriel and his Russian know-how into a thirteen-year-old buggy-whip.
But Russia kept returning, in scenes comic and topical. Of course an East German of Gabriel’s generation would speak better Russian than English, allowing a secret language to the security guards of Eurocentric technocracy. Of course new Silovik money would seek the status markers of golfing and Scotch whisky. But why my immortal smoked Russian cigarettes, why a Haitian loa told a Pushkin joke, why Gabriel’s mother found happiness through a different Pushkin joke — ask my muse. I can see the connections in retrospect, and credit my unconscious with wisdom. But maybe in the great Immateria where stories are born, Russia bullied my muse, as if offended by (or sniffing opportunity in) my casual usage. So you want a taste? Russia said menacingly. That makes it my pie.
I think it’s saying the same to the whole world right now. As recent editorials have noted, Russia doesn’t care that they just threw away the years and millions spent on international good-will in Sochi — because international good-will was never the point. Russia is announcing its return, in good ways and bad, a crying foul against a quarter-century of disrespect. If it can get its way through parties, like Gatsby, why not. But we Monopoly-playing Westerners know real estate is a better deal, especially when one already has houses on the Crimean boardwalk.
Its return, and maybe more. Maybe the Cold War, while our victory, was less war than highly-stylized battle, one of many in the centuries of struggle for cultural primacy between Russia and Europe. Maybe while Europe has foresworn monarchy, Russia’s trying it out again, strategically, seeing new potential in the unmet demand for personality cults.
Or maybe we just pretend Russia is more remote than it is, only to be surprised when it shows up at our parties and gets drunk and breaks things.
In the end, fantasy may be the best guide. Russia is like Beetlejuice, like the Candyman. It is the liminal country, just outside the edge of our vision, but it gets power when you invoke it.
Even if you were just fooling around.