An Interview with Wladimir Kaminer

Boris Fishman interviewed Wladimir Kaminer September 3, 2003. Translated by Boris Fishman.

Boris Fishman: Did you start writing before emigrating to Germany? What did you do in the Soviet Union?

Wladimir Kaminer: In the Soviet Union, I graduated from music school, with a concentration in music for theatre and television. I worked for a year, then went into the army, got out in 1989. By then, perestroika was in full swing, and many of my colleagues were rushing to take advantage of the increased freedom of movement by going to work in other countries, to acquaint themselves with the world. One guy I knew went to Hollywood — in fact, a whole class of MkhAT [the renowned Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre] students went there to study–one guy to Holland, one to Austria. So I thought I should, too.

BF: Why East Germany?

WK: I was young — twenty-two — so nobody was really calling for me. I had friends there that I had met in Moscow. This was 1990, you didn’t need a visa, not even a passport. All you needed was an invitation. And it was inexpensive.

BF: Why did you stay?

WK: At that time, the GDR still existed, legally, but in reality no longer. The Wall had come down, and a lot of Easterners were rushing west because they were afraid the Wall would go up again. In the same way, a lot of Western Europeans were coming to East Berlin, looking to create a different lifestyle for themselves. I meant to keep on traveling, see other places in Europe, but after everything these people told me about life in their countries, I didn’t really want to go anymore. In the first three months of living in East Berlin, I had everything I had wanted but couldn’t have in Moscow: my own apartment–there were all these empty houses around, so you could just move in–a cassette player, an interesting job, a new girlfriend, excellent friends. And life was really upbeat, very creative.

BF: What was the job?

WK: There were lots of cultural projects being funded by the government–there was a lot of money being thrown around at that time, especially at cultural undertakings. There was this one where state theatre actors were collaborating with mimes, working with pantomime, and I was invited to get involved. I didn’t start writing until about eight years later. I was doing theatre in the meantime, but I’d gotten sick of it. Theatre is incredibly phony, not genuine at all, very contrived. So I started participating in what they call here a Vorlesung — several young authors gather at a cafe and read. I think it’s called a “poetry slam” in the U.S. There’s a lot less between you and the public, and the means of address are far less theatrical. I enjoyed its directness, honesty, openness. First, I was a guest, and then a regular contributor. I still read every Sunday. Berlin slam.

BF: Your prose seems heavily autobiographical — immigrant life presented without much aesthetic embellishment or contrivance, perhaps only a slight irony — to the point that the narrator is named Wladimir Kaminer. Talk about your method, your philosophy of fiction.

WK: I wouldn’t say my prose is autobiographical. It isn’t about Wladimir Kaminer, it’s about others. The narrator is transparent, a cipher. The reader doesn’t learn any intimate details about the narrator’s life; the focus is on the surrounding world, the past, the future, encounters. Dialogue is hugely important, because communication is.

I write about changes. I do write about immigrants, but also music. Music not as an artistic pursuit, but as the soundtrack to life; for instance, why are certain songs popular at certain times? How does that reflect social reality? Also, I write a lot about the difference between rural and city life. Language for me is merely a means of addressing the reader. It’s only an instrument, like a guitar for a musician. You can be a great guitar player, but if you’ve got nothing to say, it’s meaningless.

BF: If you are such a fastidious realist in your fiction, did you ever consider journalism as a profession?

WK: Journalism in Germany is very superficial. It’s a transcript of what happened, and nothing more — i.e., such and such personage came to town. I want to dictate what happens, not transcribe it.

BF: But to what degree is what you write fictional?

WK: There isn’t much fiction in it. But if, say, I like observing cats, and write constantly about cats, that can’t be journalism either. For an animal-lovers magazine, maybe.

BF: There was a New York Times article recently about the new generation of German novelists, arguing that they have forsaken the themes that obsessed their forefathers — Schlink, Sebald, Grass — like German guilt and the World War, and care far more for subjective meditations on individual lives and much earthier preoccupations, like personal happiness. What’s your take on this?

WK: I would say there are two major groups of young German writers. Closest to me are my colleagues — slam writers, people who write short stories, what we call “rock ‘n’ roll” literature, that is, literature with “drive,” that communicates directly with the reading public, a kind of new urban realism. There was a record released several years ago called “Asphalt Poets.” Kind of a silly name, but it gives you the idea–close to the ground, forthright, a rock ‘n’ roll reality. This is becoming more and more popular. And it isn’t confined to the short form. Now there are rock ‘n’ roll novels, too. The idea is to try to remain open-ended, spontaneous, free to experiment, without getting locked into some kind of form. Because form, by definition, is contrivance, theatre, phoniness. There are no novels in life. Each novel in life has its own prehistory, and an endless posthistory, too. Then there is “dandy” literature — “pop” literature, written by young, disappointed intellectuals from very rich families. They like to write about sad things.

BF: To name some names from the Times piece: Judith Hermann?

WK: She is very cool, my neighbor, actually. What they call here a Frauleinwunder. Quite a sensation — well, she is this young woman, writes well. But it’s erotic literature, you know — if she was a boy, she’d never be on the bestseller list.

BF: David Wagner?

WK: Also my neighbor. We go to the same kindergarten, actually. Good writer also. He’s a serious one, though. Serious boy.

BF: You mean you take your kids to the same kindergarten.

WK [laughs]: Right.

BF: Christian Kracht?

WK: That’s pop lit, not our kind. His dad’s some sort of multimillionaire banker in Switzerland. So the son wanders through Thailand and Mongolia with a backpack full of coke, and writes about the frustrations of a refined Westerner in a savage world. His last novel — he and a friend are in Tehran in the seventies, there are all these drug-fueled homosexual orgies, and then the revolution breaks out and everyone dies.

BF: Ingo Schulze?

WK: He and I meet all the time abroad, he gets invited all around, too. Good fellow. But he’s very theatrical, you know. I mean, he started out as a playwright, and a playwright he’s remained. He doesn’t take anything from life, invents all sorts of things. It’s academic literature. I guess that would be a third kind.

BF: So, which does the German public prefer?

WK: There are ninety million people in Germany, and many people read, so there’s room for everyone. I mean, it’s interesting when someone like Hermann, a young woman, writes erotic lit — in her last novel, she is in this cafe in Venice, and the man sitting at the table next to hers suddenly whips out his member at her. She goes into this fit, can’t sleep. Of course people are going to read about this! But people read Kracht too. Papa is a millionaire, so everyone is curious how the son lives.

BF: But to go back to the notion of collective guilt as an obsession, among fiction writers, but also the society at large.

WK: This reckoning with the past, they’ve really filled the quota on that here, surpassed it, even. Five years ago, there was a Nazi demonstration in Munich. Their slogans said: “Opa war Ordnung” — “Grandpa was okay.” There was a huge public outcry! It doesn’t matter if Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi. If he was alive at that time, then he was complicit. Nothing like this has ever happened in Russia. I mean, it’s beginning, archives are being opened, the facts are leaking out, but before, nobody in Russia ever thought such an expiation was necessary. Half the people were prisoners, and the other half executioners. Where are they now, who are their descendants? Nobody knows.

It’s different in Germany, even now. An awareness of what took place, and vigilance to ensure it never happens again — I mean, it took so little to unleash that madness–permits the Germans to consider the past with some remove, makes it possible to envision a future. It’s totally different in Austria. I heard this joke about Austria recently. There’s a documentary on television about concentration camps, and two old ladies on the bus are talking about it. “What horror!” they’re saying. “You would never have something like this [on TV] under the Fuhrer.” There’s absolutely no national remorse, no soul-searching at all.

Young German novelists are actually writing more and more about World War II. This was the mainstay of older writers before, but has now become available as a subject to them as well.

BF: What are they after?

WK: They’re trying to figure out what happened. Who was Grandpa?

BF: You are less political, yes?

WK: Well, politics is very important here in Germany, so you can’t avoid writing about it. Besides, having grown up under socialism, it’s sort of in my bloodstream. Living under a capitalist system here in Germany also sets you thinking about politics.

BF: Have you been back to Russia? What were your impressions?

WK: I’ve been back many times. It’s a wonderful place, and I know lots of Germans who’ve left to settle there. I mean, it has different joys and different griefs. It’s a great thing that ideology no longer dictates life. The greatest thing is that you can move around freely now, live where you want. Even in America, with big cockroaches! It’s a great thing that no two places are the same, it gives you options. It’s a fairly stable place now, sort of like Poland. That isn’t very interesting.

BF: But how do you compare it to Germany?

WK: The people there think less of the future than they do here in Germany. Life insurance is huge here, pensions are a constant obsession. There, the people don’t think about this, they are focused on the present. They don’t have enough to live on today, let alone pay for life insurance for future security. They live life to the max today, but when they get sick, they die off immediately. Hey, that’s a way to go about things, too.

BF: Do you read modern Russian literature? How would you explain its obsession with postmodernism, Far Eastern spiritualism, etc.?

WK: [Viktor] Pelevin writes about emptiness, yes, but you can’t say that emptiness has become a national trope because of this. I mean, you take a detective fiction writer like [Boris] Akunin, who is read by ten times as many people, but you can’t say that detective fiction is popular because of him. It depends on the author, really. Take [Vladimir] Sorokin–he is read by a very narrowly defined group of intellectuals, actually. He’s got these strange, festive covers, so maybe a hundred people who weren’t supposed to buy his book did. And, also, they burned his book, so that helps sales. [A reference to a campaign by the wholesome-living, pro-Putin youth group Moving Together. In the summer of 2002, its activists disposed of “depraved” works by the postmodernist writers Pelevin and Sorokin in a giant toilet bowl stationed outside the Bolshoi Theatre.]

BF: You recently visited the U.S. for the first time. What were your thoughts about what you saw?

WK: I was in the States for only ten days. We have this expression in German: Streber. Roughly, it translates as “busting your ass,” only a little more crass. In school, this refers to the kids who sit in the front row and constantly raise their hands. I mean, lots of people see life this way. Take the waiters we had in the U.S., for instance. They wouldn’t leave you alone until they showed you every godforsaken cut of meat they had on the menu. I mean, I understand they work for a tip, but . . . This one time, this server chased after us for three blocks [after we left a modest tip] — “Was something wrong? You didn’t like our service?” he kept yelling.

The Russians in the States are different, too, by the way. Either they become correct like the Americans or vanish into oblivion. There’s no such concept as living or working moderately, serenely. Or not working, and just relaxing. Bells and fanfare, or nothing at all. There’s nothing in the middle.

BF: So what’s the middle road?

WK: A shortened work week! Monday to Wednesday.

BF: Reconciling yourself to a more modest life?

WK: Well, you see, here in Germany, you don’t really have exceedingly extravagant luxuries, pink villas high as the sky, coastlines, big cars. The rich live a lot like the middle class. The luxuries available to both are roughly the same. That’s socialism for you.

BF: Tell me about your musical side project, how it relates to your literary work.

WK: It’s called Russendisko. A friend and I spin Russian club music, wild ska-punk, totally unknown in the West. We have music from other places, too, like San Francisco, but all of it by Russian bands. Deejaying is an excellent break from the intellectual strain of writing, it requires no intellectualism. It’s going well, two weeks ago, we had 2,500 people at our show in Frankfurt. And we’re getting ready to put out our second CD.

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