Stupidity is the Characteristic of Our Time

An Interview with Viktor Yerofeyev

/ by Petra Godeša

Starting as a literary critic, Viktor Yerofeyev (born in 1947) was expelled from Russian Writers´ Union in 1979, for publishing a collection of forbidden literature. As a writer, he caught the international public eye in 1989 with his work, Russian Beauty, a book about young heroine and her sexual exploration of different men in Russian society. Today, Yerofeyev is one of the most prominent contemporary Russian writers, with his most notable novels, Life with an Idiot and Good Stalin, translated in numerous world languages.

When I asked him about his first impressions of Ljubljana, he mentioned young people, dressed in a funny way and the joie the vivre atmosphere of the city. Similar to Prague, Warsaw, Amsterdam and Moskow. It´s a good thing, he said, this kind of repetition, it means we´re still part of same civilisation.

Do you think there is still some future for mankind, if you look to the younger generations?

If there´s no hope in young people, there´s no future! We need to have hope in youngsters. I honestly don´t think we have enough reasons to have such hope, but still, western people are not aggressive and nasty, they are nice. It´s a big foundation, but it´s not enough. The most important thing now is intelligence, cleverness. We have too much of stupidity on earth! Young people need to be professional in their political activity, because we have such a big crisis of democracy and liberalism in Europe. We need to finish this terrible fight against the Islamic countries, this is the biggest challenge now.

When you say intelligence, do you mean academical knowledge or common sense?

Both. Academic knowledge is important, but it´s not enough. A part of young people should be academics, we need deeper knowledge, but common sense is also a part of being smart, and it´s missing a lot! The most important thing we need to return to is a metaphysical mindset. I am not saying we should all go back to traditional religious practices. When I speak about metaphysics, I speak about meaning of life. And writing books, if they´re good, is precisely about that. If young people would read more, it wouldn´t be good only for their intelligence, but mostly for their search for the meaning of life. Good books are like vitamins: You put them in your head and they help you survive.

Your books are recognized as quite provocative. Is this your way to address people who read less and less, by raising some dust?

My books have been translated into 35 languages. It´s impossible to provoke everyone. You can´t provoke with sex in the Netherlands, it´s a banality there, but I can´t publish Russian Beauty or The Body in Iran, it´s too much for their culture. If I provoke someone in Iran, I can´t attain the same effect in USA. People who are provoked have a different knowledge than I – my books are my knowledge – but I don´t see how you could do it intentionally. I don´t believe in provocation. When I write, I express the energies that come to me, I don´t conciously think about writing.

Maybe this is the most provocative part of your writing? The honesty? How can one be provoked, if he is honest to himself?

Yes, maybe my books are provocative to those who are not free inside themselves. At the beginning of my career, I noticed that beautiful young girls reacted more positively to my writing than the others, probably because they had fewer complexes. Such was my impression that, as an author, I could communicate better with a female audience, if there aren´t any complexes involved. The theme of sex or pornography in my books becomes just a pretext to enter the subconsciousness of the reader, so he could go to different places in his mind and understand what´s going on. Sexuality is just a door to be opened, not the main goal. It happens or it doesn´t, if you take The Body, for instance, not even half of the text is connected with sexuality. When I published Russian Beauty in the late Soviet Union, all of the two-hundred reviews were negative. All of them! But now the book is one of the classics of Russian literature, old ladies are telling me they adore it. Provocations come from the outside, not the inside. If you´re strong enough, you address the provocation and think about it. It´s supposed to make you think, not to be offended.

Was Russia, as an enviroment, the determinant that made you tough enough to become capable of handling the raw truth of human life?

Russia does help me a lot. It´s a paradise for writers. There are so many problems out there, not just political ones, but also cultural, private and so on. At the same time, you can evolve hatred of the system, it depends on how deeply you go with your social emotion. We have journalists, even writers, who went so far hating the system that they stopped thinking about other things. There is a limit, if you have lived in Germany at the time of Hitler, probably the best thing is to say goodbye and leave. But Putin´s Russia is a country where you can fight against the system. It´s risky to be a writer anywhere!

Is your need to be a writer such a big imperative to you that it influenced your decision to stay in the country?

It´s possible to write everywhere, but if you explore the northern lights, you have to go to the north. Even if you could freeze your ass sitting there! Probably this isn´t the best profession in the world, to explore ice, but someone should do it. When I sent a letter to Kremelj against the annexation of Donbass, I didn´t feel comfortable in Russia anymore, so I spent the next half a year teaching in Berlin. I wouldn´t say I ran away, but I felt it´s better to stay away for a while. It´s best not to be writer if you want to have a comfortable life!

It seems you take your writing as a responsibility?

To some extent yes, if we speak about publication of the book. But if we speak about writing, the better the book, the less the responsibility. One should allow words to be totally free. The words take the responsibility, the best book is when you don´t know how you managed to write it.

You actually started your career as a literary critic. Was it because you were a bit reluctant in this process, in its pure expression?

This is quite an important question to me. It´s not a good thing to start like that. However, one must be born to be a writer, because writing is not about writing at all, it´s about pure passion, for whatever. It could be passion to collect stamps, for example, but you have to have such passion you can´t stop it. Finally, there is a moment when you meet with words, but you were a writer before, just pure energy and passion. The second important thing is the belief that other people are the same. At first you think everybody is like you, but eventually you come to the disappointment, and realize that people are quite different. Then you start to write! In my case the problem was that the Soviet literature of that time wasn´t very smart. It was the literature of liberation, just full of emotions. As a critic, I noticed that and had a desire to go deeper into the literature, to start to write about important points in Russian philosophy, and this helped me to get out of this naivety. I did write some short stories before that.

You mention your love of humanity a lot in interviews, but there is also a lot of criticism towards people coming from you. There is a conflict in you, wouldn´t you say?

Not when I write, I am not trying to improve people, it´s not my task to judge. But as an ordinary person, I definitely prefer democracy to a totalitarian regime, as much as I prefer a smart person over a stupid one, which is quite natural. We really do have problems with stupidity now, on a global scale. This is probably the characteristic of our time, because stupidity starts to rule the world. But, to be angry, this is stupid also! There is a lot of good about humanity, too. The Body is a book about that, evil and good, love and despair, pleasure and pain. You have it all in your body. In our European culture, the body is still under suspicion, as it could be the work of a demon. It´s different in Japan, they took bodily functions and connected them to other things, to family and love. In Russia, there are very different views on love in different parts of the country, Soči is like Sodom and Gomora, while there are girls carefully protecting their honor just right across the border, 20 kilometers away. The question is, who is right? This is interesting for a writer, much more than political stupidity that waters away with time. Writing is mostly about human nature, a part of it does stay the same, but a part of it is distinctive in time, so we should document that.

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Petra Godeša

is a Slovene journalist.