The translator of Fish: A History of One Migration, Nina Shevchuk-Murray, interviews Peter Aleshkovsky about his novel.
Could you tell me how the idea of this book came to you?
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, post-Soviet society began to change dramatically... The nations created out of the former Soviet republics began to challenge the position of local resident Russians, and this is understandable: the Russian presence in Central Asia, in the Caucasian republics, or in the Baltics is very controversial. It’s like in India, where many often greatly credit British culture, yet at the same time express extreme distaste for the English gentlemen who delivered it. Since the times of Ancient Rome, empires have always ruled with their guns.
When Russians in the former Soviet republics began to return to Russia, their movement coincided with a flood of non-Russian refugees — locals fleeing the civil wars and criminal unrest that had flared up in the former republics. Many were moving in search of better jobs; today Moscow probably rivals Paris or London with the size of its immigrant workforce. Naturally, many reactionary, nationalist "Muscovites" — who themselves only recently moved to the capital from the provinces — were poor and worked at difficult jobs. And so they have been quick to blame any trouble on “newcomers.” I felt it was important to write about Russians’ rejection of Russians — not to mention the poor Kazakh or Kyrgyz migrant workers. This is why the main character is Russian.
Something else is important to remember. I am an archeologist by training, so I am very aware of the fact that, since the Stone Age, migration has been a constant circumstance of human existence. America is something of an exception to the political rule that dictates xenophobia, since it is a country that embraces its immigrant roots. In fact, the “melting pot” rhetoric is not unlike the Soviet propaganda that asserted the equality of all nations. Official politics aside, however, real people living real lives feel in their bones what is right; they judge their neighbors by their deeds and not by the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes.
A very long time ago, when I was a student, I lived in Panjakent [where the novel begins] and worked in the archeological expedition excavating the ancient city there. Ever since then I’ve been captivated by the natural beauty of Asia, the generosity of its people, their traditional ways of life and their honesty and openness. I knew that one day I would pay them back for everything they taught me.
You have authored several novels and short story collections. Was your work on Fish different from your experience with your other books?
For me, working on a novel is not different from working on a short story. It’s work. Sometimes it’s very hard. At other times, it’s enthralling. The care and constant attention to the language that one must exercise remind me of a young mother’s experience with her growing belly. You coddle it, you stroke it, you love it and all the time you are attuned to the new life that has miraculously begun and is searching for its way into the world.
How do you see this book fitting within your career?
I don’t know what “career” means for a writer. I think, a literary life, a writing life, must be very much like a carpenter’s, or a fisherman’s, or a home inspector’s – like that of any person who defines him or herself through their work and, despite all its routine frustrations, find in it a certain amount of light and joy. I’ve never been a carpenter or a home inspector; I have, on many occasions, been a merely adequate fisherman. The beauty of my job is that nothing prevents me from imagining for myself a better one. Say as a carpenter. Carpenters, by the way, are probably blessed because their job doesn’t require that they imagine themselves to be writers, and so they can focus on real things rather than slipping into a parallel universe. Which is where a writer regularly finds himself.
Why should American readers read Fish?
Readers like stories, and I feel I have written a good one. I trust the reader to pick and choose through the book to find what touches them most and make it a part of their life.
A writer, like a cook, can sometimes, through a stroke of luck, whip up an extraordinary dish from very familiar ingredients — something so good that you just want to keep eating, and to hell with the calories. I hope that American readers will find my entrée as edible as did Russian readers. The beautiful thing about art is that it has no nationality. The ethnographic elements in this book are my spices — without them, this ”dish“ would have been flat and uninteresting. Americans who move across their country in pursuit of work, and the legal and illegal immigrants who dream of "green cards" — they are the embodiment of 21st century migrations, and thus this story should resonate with them. On top of that, I tell myself that a story told by a man from a woman’s point of view will compel women readers to search the book for fraudulent bits or errors — all the way to the last page. That’s my greatest dream.
Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.