From the Sun City of Dreams to the City of Angels: A Conversation with Belarusian Artist and Author Artur Klinau
By Sasha RazorJuly 15, 2017
In 2007, there was only one person in Belarus capable of publishing an issue of a journal dedicated to the warfare between the imperial Russian and the indigenous Belarusian cultures. (The same type of conflict led to the war in Ukraine in 2014.) Upon seeing the cover, with its depiction of Karl Marx shaving his beard (Marx’90 by Vladimir Tsesler), I set off to find its chief editor in person. I met Artur Klinau, a tall, bespectacled man with graying hair, at a modest cafe in the building of Minsk’s Central Supermarket. This cafe, adorned with Socialist Realist relief panels, serves as the de facto office space for pARTisan. Between endless cups of cheap coffee and cigarettes, their four-person team plans some of the country’s most subversive intellectual publications.
Returning to Belarus after some years in the States, I immediately felt at home with the young experimental artists that surrounded pARTisan. I attended crowded meetings at the Ў-gallery (the country’s only venue for contemporary art), and accompanied them on trips to represent Belarusian art abroad. There was one person who clearly stood out among this boisterous crowd: the Maestro. Art managers and gallerists talked to him in lowered voices, and everyone addressed him formally. His words carried weight. When he renamed the center of Minsk the “Sun City,” the name caught on with tourists.
Klinau’s first book, Travel Guide to the Sun City of Dreams (2006), was picked up by a prestigious publishing house in Germany and became an international success. His second book, Shalom: A War Novel (2011), is already a cult classic. There are 25 lavish issues of pARTisan and 12 art books in the pARTisan Collection, documenting the most important figures and movements of contemporary Belarusian art. The Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA invited Klinau to be their artist-in-residence in May 2017. The following interview is a result of this cultural exchange.
SASHA RAZOR: You came from the Republic of Belarus. Tell us, how does it feel to be a Belarusian author today?
ARTUR KLINAU: I don’t know whether my words will make you laugh or cry, but in our country the notion of “cultural heroism” is still very relevant. This means that if you decide to join the ranks of “unofficial” Belarusian literati or artists, you should clearly understand that you’ll never see any money or fame during your lifetime. Your creative exchanges will be limited to a marginal circle of other local “culture heroes.” At best, you will be labeled an “unknown genius” in your obituary. So I can only admire people who still want to play this game. It means that they are guided by something larger than money or fame. In Western Europe, by comparison, there is very little opportunity for “cultural heroism” of this sort; writers there live in the new era of print-on-demand. And whatever challenges their market may pose, I doubt that any Western writers would agree to work under our conditions.
Can you comment on how the conditions of literary production in Belarus in 2017 differ from Soviet times?
The system that we have today stands in stark contrast to the state-sponsored literary production that many Belarusian writers enjoyed under Soviet rule. Forget such Latinates as honorarium, sanatorium, and the like. Our literary scene is an absurd hybrid of remnants of the Soviet system, with its ideological suppression, and an underdeveloped infrastructure in which independent culture has difficulty thriving on its own. To paraphrase Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the recently deceased Russian poet, in Belarus an author is more than an author. He is also a publisher, an entrepreneur, a promoter, a bookseller, and a critic.
Can you give examples illustrating your statement about the domestic Belarusian “culture heroes” and how émigrés from Belarus might or might not fit into this paradigm?
Sure. From the historical perspective, Belarus can be seen as a cemetery of “unknown geniuses.” For example, who knows of our brilliant poets Veniamin Blazhenny (1921–’99) and Alexey Zhdanov (1948–’93). Like Marc Chagall, Blazhenny was born in a Jewish family near Vitebsk, only two decades after the great painter. He wrote on religious themes in the voice of a Holy Fool, although his poetic diction is theomachist in its essence. The rediscovery of this poet influenced the development of poetry in our country. Or take Alexey Zhdanov, an underground artist and poet who was working around the same time. Both belonged to the so-called “Minsk school of poetry,” which is virtually unknown outside of Belarus. I recently published an album of Zhdanov’s work, but there is not even a Wikipedia page or a reliable biography for him. This is what I mean by a cemetery of “unknown geniuses.”
Now, let’s examine the trajectory of people who left the country. Who would have heard of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov or the composers Irving Berlin and Vernon Duke (Vladimir Alexander Dukelsky) today, if their families had not immigrated to the United States? Could Louis B. Mayer have founded his MGM studio in Minsk, where he was born? What about the Warner Brothers, who were born in a small village near Vitebsk? Or Kirk Douglas, whose parents left Chausy, a miserable town near Mogilev? What would have happened to Marc Chagall had he not gone to Paris? Or Chaim Soutine? They, too, would have joined the ranks of the “unknown geniuses,” and, most likely, would have perished in Stalin’s purges or the Holocaust.
Most of the people you’ve just mentioned are Jewish. They fled the territory of what is now contemporary Belarus at the turn of the 20th century. Would they be able to relate to the modern Belarusian project?
I see it as a story of continuity with many disruptions. That was just one wave of migrations during the crazy 20th century. There were times when Belarusian cities were 70 percent Jewish. Virtually none of that population is left now, and not only because of emigration, but because of the Holocaust. Based on several estimates, the Nazis killed about 800,000 Belarusian Jews in the World War II. But even in the 1970s, the presence of Jewish culture was a lot more palpable. I myself grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and remember the old people speaking Yiddish along Shevchenko Boulevard in Minsk. The Minsk school of poetry, which I mentioned, included many Jewish poets — people of the postwar generation, whose parents used to think and express themselves in Yiddish. It is a part of our history and culture that we simply cannot ignore. I dedicated one issue of pARTisan to Jewish topics. I would also like to organize a Klezmer festival in Kaptaruny, an art village that I built near the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. There is a place right next to it named Lyntupy, a former shtetl. It would be nice to have people and music return to this land, if only for a couple of days, to honor this part of our history and to restore continuity.
What about Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature? How does she fit into the paradigm?
I would say that Alexievich is an exception: she managed to cross a boundary from “culture hero” to the category of “renowned genius.” This writer started out as a typical “culture hero” and dedicated her entire life to the study of post-Soviet man. With Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the Russian aggression in Donbass, the demand for her work increased, because people wanted to understand this situation, its sources, and what they were dealing with. All of a sudden, we learned that post-Soviet man is still there — that these people did not magically vanish. They are living among us, they resemble us, and they have children of their own. Under certain circumstances, these post-Soviet people can become dangerous. In this sense, Svetlana Alexievich’s oeuvre captures the essence of the time we live in.
Tell us a little bit more about Belarus. Is the Western media’s cliché of Belarus as “the last dictatorship of Europe” justified? How do Belarusians feel about Russian aggression in Ukraine?
Let me begin by answering that Belarus is not exactly a dictatorship — nor is it the last one — nor is it yet European. Even if we were to call it a dictatorship, then we would have to specify that it is a dictatorship of a postmodern kind, a dictatorship straight out of a picaresque novel. A dictatorship of this type does not resemble the black-and-white dictatorships of the past. It is nothing compared to what is happening across the Russian border. Of course, the Belarus in which I live is more complex. Our people’s character is strange and hard to grasp. Our national archetype is the partisan — a clandestine person who hides in the forest and fights his oppressors. Have you ever seen truly clandestine characters raise their voices to represent themselves? As a partisan, you can foil the entire operation by exposing your identity. This is why nobody hears or knows much about the Belarusians these days. My people simply do not like to be looked at. They are hobbits in their essence, akin to the hard-working hobbits from J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, who prefer to stay out of sight. And one can understand why. When you have had Mordor at the East for 500 years, when there are hordes of orcs racing back and forth through Middle-earth, all you want to do is put on a magic invisible hat. Of course, at the moment, there is a lot of fear among Belarusians regarding a possible Russian invasion.
You also draw on picaresque elements in your own writing. How does your work as a writer connect to the political realities you live in?
The political model we are discussing is very interesting from a literary perspective. My latest novel [Shklatara, 2013] is about the relationship between a postmodernist dictatorship and its flip side, the postmodernist underground. One can identify its genre as “reality literature.” This is neither a fiction nor a documentary novel. It’s a reality show in literature, where all the characters and events are taken from life, but at times these real-life events look so absurd that they appear to be staged or made up. This is the essence of our picaresque dictatorship.
Do you think this picaresque dictatorship is unique to Belarus, or do we see certain picaresque tendencies elsewhere in the world?
It just crossed my mind that the models and schemes of the picaresque dictatorship were invented in Belarus in the 1990s. Then other regimes started copying them with great pleasure. Take, for example, Russia. Vladimir Putin took it one step further and invented picaresque wars; they also call them hybrid wars. President Trump seems to have come straight out of a picaresque novel as well. I’m not suggesting that Trump copied his political technology from our president, Alexander Lukashenko, but the similarities are striking. It feels as if I’ve already read this book.
While we’re on the subject of the picaresque, can you tell us about your novel Shalom (2011)? It’s situated in contemporary Belarus and your protagonist is a typical Belarusian hobbit who does something out of the ordinary, something that contradicts this idea of the partisan Belarusian.
It’s really a novel about an artist in contemporary society. My protagonist, Andrew, is a sculptor from Mogilev who puts on a German spiked helmet, a Pickelhaube, and never takes it off. Only an artist would do that. (I saw this helmet at a flea market in Bonn, Germany, and that’s how I got the idea.) This headwear, with its spike, stands in stark contrast to that magic invisible hat, which Belarusians love. Some people say that I wrote a manifesto of visibility for Belarusians. And I agree, in a way. The novel is an allegory of Belarusian society, which is so closed-off that we can even compare its people to potato tubers rooted deeply underground. So here you have a tuber so impudent that it decides to become a fruit, not a vegetable — a fruit so brave that it not only peeks its head above the ground, but also crowns itself with a golden spike. What Andrew does is test our tolerance for transgression, for “otherness.” And the further East he travels, the less this “otherness” is tolerated. This journey is not simply geographic, it’s also existential. The artist is moving toward existential solitude. Because society, which is based on the “norm,” is bound to expel him.
So what is the role of the artist who lives and works under a postmodern picaresque dictatorship?
If we are to speak about the role of the artist in general, this is how I see it. The word expels the artist little by little. The artist is still strong and capable of creating new meanings, but he is no longer regarded as a prophet, a guru, or a high priest. The main mysteries of our civilization happen elsewhere, without his or her participation. The artist undergoes an honorable museification; our civilization condemns him or her to retirement.
But in our country, under a picaresque dictatorship, the artist has neither an honorable museification nor a decent retirement fund. If we only had a classical dictatorship, then the artist would be very much in demand. Because every classical dictatorship strives for the creation of its own monumental style. At least this was the case with the former Soviet Empire. It recreated the grand decoration of an ideal society, and it needed an artist to carry out this task. The artist was a pivotal participant in this mystery.
The postmodern dictatorship does not create its own grand style. Like any postmodern oeuvre, it cites previous styles. Therefore, it needs no original creator, just someone who knows how to manipulate the old content. You can easily substitute the artist with a political strategist. The original artist has nothing to offer.
Your most famous book, Travel Guide to the Sun City of Dreams, is precisely an attempt to investigate the monumental style of the Soviet epoch. It describes an ideal city, a communist utopia built in the center of Minsk. This book is popular in Europe and has been translated into German, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, and French. What is the secret of its popularity?
As you know, the Soviet empire strove to create an ideal communist society across all its territory. In every town, large or small, we discover some elements, some fragments of this utopia. And, of course, the biggest concentration of these fragments can be found in Moscow, the main altar of Soviet society. But Minsk is the only place in the former Soviet empire where the project of an ideal city was carried out to its full extent.
I think that my readers like the emotional component of my examination of this ideal city. It’s not an objective narrative authored by a historian, or by an architectural or cultural critic. These are the memoirs of a boy who was born in the Sun City of Dreams. The book describes Minsk lovingly, because the boy believes, with childlike sincerity, that he lives in the Country of Happiness. There is also a second journey in this book — a retrospective glance at the city by the same person, but from a different, grown-up perspective. He is a lot more critical than the boy. At the end, these two trajectories intersect at a point of horror. The reader discovers the nightmarish reality behind the utopian facade.
The Sun City of Dreams is useful not only for understanding Belarusians, but also post-Soviet people in general. In essence, this is a group of people who underwent a gigantic experiment — they had been through some kind of dream lab. Many of them recoiled from reality upon waking — especially since, for many, this awakening was forced upon them. What we have today is a large group living among us who would like to fall back under the spell. And we need to understand who these people are, in order to understand their capacity to survive and to help them with their disrupted sleep pattern.
You’ve spent three weeks in Los Angeles. What do you think of LA?
My main impression from three weeks in Los Angeles is that it is an insanely charming city. I expected to see a lot more signs of materialism and of imperial domination over here. After all, Hollywood is the capital of show biz. But I found LA to be very democratic and open. Or perhaps the visual codes are blurred and harder to decode, and the wealth is hidden elsewhere, far from sight. All in all, I came to love these endless concrete buildings, holes in the walls of all sorts, and the surprises that the city has in store. LA reminds me most of Alice in Wonderland. The opportunities seem infinite, so long as you follow the right rabbit and open the right door.
I was also thrilled by my reception at UCLA, at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures. It was great to see how much interest UCLA students and professors expressed in Belarus and in my own work. Also, a funny thing happened to me: I met immigrants from Belarus everywhere I went and even bought a vintage briefcase from a Belarusian vendor at the Melrose Trading Post. This briefcase is the subject of my new novel, a sequel to Shalom.
Sasha Razor holds a PhD in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Her dissertation focused on the screenplays of Russian prose authors in the 1920s and 1930s.
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