Russian Booker winner: The Berlin Wall was never part of history
Rossiyskaya Gazeta: The main character of The Fortress, archaeologist Ivan Maltsov, is writing a book about the Golden Horde and at night dreams that he is a great Mongolian warrior. Why did you resort to this device, of a novel inside a novel?
Peter Aleshkovsky: "The Mongolian chapters" are there to realize that the Berlin Wall was never part of history, like the Great Wall of China was, but everybody knows that anyway. It was erected at one point, during the Cold War, but it was such a small and insignificant bit of the history of humankind. The problem is that we are still trying – and at the moment increasingly so – to separate ourselves from other states and cultures. Other spaces were never separated from Rus. Ancient Rus, medieval Rus, Peter the Great’s Rus were always a brew of different influences and trends. We know how many foreign officials there were in Peter the Great’s court.
RG: Your protagonist is perhaps the only person in the novel who has a conscience, yet at the same time he is the most unhappy character in the book. He makes a discovery – finds an ancient temple – but dies, is buried alive at the site of his discovery. What did he do to deserve it?
P.A.: It is, of course, also a metaphor. He dies and he wins. I would not say it is a defeat. There is a spark, a moment of touching the eternal, the truth. You know, death, a seeming defeat, may in fact be a source of strength. I recently had a meeting with readers in Murmansk [Ed.: 1,150 miles north of Moscow].
RG: Can words and books change the world, or at least have a serious impact on it?
P.A.: No, nothing can change the world. Except that perhaps the Bible, the Koran, the Torah have changed the world, but we are speaking not about religion but about the books. A book can change a person’s life; for example, my life was changed by books. Since childhood, my life has been transformed by the word and to this day still I read every day.
R.G.: Back in 1990, Venedikt Yerofeyev, the author of Moscow–Petushki, was asked what ills were the main ones for Russia then. He replied…
P.A.: Perhaps you’d better not tell me and we’ll compare?
RG: What an excellent idea, let's compare!
P.A.: I think our whole conversation was about it but I shall say it once again: an incredible loss of culture, a neglect of culture.
RG: A loss in relation to something?
And what did Yerofeyev replied to that question?
RG: Folly and incredible greediness.
P.A.: These are the same things. Culture implies quixotism, and calmness, and generosity. That is why lack of culture always equals greediness and dishonesty. It’s all about grabbing something at whatever cost. Disgusting.
This is an abridged version of the interview first published in Russian by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.