A Q&A with Andrei Gelasimov
centers on Kostya, a wounded young man who comes home from war broken and jaded. Have you seen battle firsthand? Why did you choose to put yourself inside of the mind of a tortured soldier? Andrei Gelasimov:
I’ve never been to a war, but I was raised in the family of an officer. My grandfather fought against Japanese troops in 1945. He used to tell me a lot about that war, and I was a keen listener. What could be more gripping for a 10-year-old boy? But I wouldn’t say that my book is exactly about war. A bit later, when my grandfather died, there came an understanding that all of us are “tortured soldiers” to a certain extent--including those who never saw any battle or held any weapons in their hands.
The book takes place in and around the Moscow suburbs and deals with veterans of the Chechen War. But the fears, vices, pain, and petty quibbles of Kostya’s friends are universal. Did you imagine this story would be read outside Russia?
At the time, I never thought about such things. I was simply overwhelmed with grief and sorrow for the generation of students born at the end of Soviet era and doomed to redeem sins they never committed. Perhaps there is a universal law according to which innocent boys must suffer greatly for what their fathers did. And these youngsters are sacrificed everywhere, not only in Russia. I don’t think it matters in what language you are trying to tell it. Q:
Kostya’s true talent is drawing. Why did you create a character who is both haunted by images and consoled by them? AG:
Sometimes terrible things happen to us in our lives. But over the course of time, we see that those misfortunes also brought something important, something we wouldn’t get without them. And this duality helps us to comprehend life with more patience and dignity. It’s like an old chest in your grandma’s attic, full of memorable things. But if you want to add something else, there’s no space. You have to lose if you want to gain. You have to be haunted if you are looking for consolation. Q:
How does Thirst
compare to your other works, such as The Lying Year
and The Gods of the Steppes
, which will be released in English next year? AG:
For me, it’s impossible to enter one river twice. New water, new splashes, new me with new shivers--new everything. When I start my next book, I always invent a completely fresh universe from scratch. The Lying Year
is an attempt at a humorous and lyric approach to the period of post-Soviet life that was not funny at all in reality. The end of the 1990s in Russia--with all the bandits, poverty, nouveau riche, and all that jazz--was a disaster. Unlike Thirst
, that book is about entertainment.
The Gods of the Steppes
depicts quite a different world. The action takes place in the Eastern outskirts of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1945, just before the final battle against the Japanese Army in World War II. Nothing funny there at all: great victory, great losses, and local boys dreaming of never-ending war.
His face burned away in the war in Chechnya, Kostya stuffs his fridge with vodka bottles and leaves the apartment only to help Olga next door scare her kid into good behavior. But when his comrade Seryoga disappears, Kostya reluctantly reunites with his army buddies, and together they bicker, drink, and drive around Moscow for two weeks, this time in an SUV instead of an armored personnel carrier. The real action, though, is in Kostya’s head, where childhood memories blur with present-day nightmares. What happened to the quiet boy who stayed after school for hours, filling notebook after notebook with drawings of naked women? Gelasimov’s spare prose and pointed dialogue make this tale of drinking, disfigurement, and self-discovery a memorable one; Kostya’s unique voice may particularly resonate with readers dealing with postcombat adjustment issues in their own lives. An English translation of Gelasimov’s acclaimed novel The Gods of the Steppes
is also forthcoming, but, unfortunately, we will have to wait a little longer for his other works, including the intriguingly titled story collection Fox Mulder Looks like a Pig
. — Brendan Driscoll