An Interview with Joerg Plath
DER TAGESSPIEGEL (BERLIN)
January 4, 2003
A HUNGER FOR DIRT AND POWER
Stefan Sullivan on Dump Trucks, Siberian Shamans and the German Pipe Organ
Mister Sullivan, Your life as an author and researcher, including contracts with intelligence agencies, has been so turbulent that it easily suffices for two persons.
I always nibble a bit instead of eating my fill. In that sense„ “Sibirischer Schwindel” is a long toast to dilettantism.
In 1966, everything began in a rather ordinary way. You were born the son of a German and an American and grew up in comfortable surroundings.
My parents met in the States. In 1969 we moved to southern Bavaria for a year. So German was my first language. Although I later grew up in America, I`ve preserved an intimate, almost romantic, relationship to Germany, mostly naive, sentimental memories: the children`s songs, pine forests, onion-domed churches, the smells of brown coal and tar, the heating oil in my grandparents` basement.
Later you studied Political Science and Russian in the United States.
As a kid, I wanted to go into the diplomatic corps. The Soviet Union during the Reagan period was the Evil Empire. That, of course, made me curious. Right out of college, I worked as a Sovietologist on a CIA-sponsored project for a defense contractor. Then in 1989, I went to Oxford to write my PhD on Hegel. I actually had plenty of time, played chess, played piano in a nightclub and was constantly off in Russia on some project or another. In total though, I only lived there for about two years
What did you do in Russia?
Every time something different. Russia was changing very fast, but if you spoke the language well you were welcome everywhere as The Western Expert. You just had to play along, make it up, at the time it was a relatively open place. Back in the 1980s, Russia expertise was all about defense policy. As the Soviet Union fell apart, suddenly there were opportunities for historians and ethnographers. I got interested in separatist movements and started writing about the revival of traditionalism in Siberia, Yakutia and Tuva mainly. Then I worked for a while for a London nonprofit that wanted to bring peace to Abkhazia and Chechnia. Then along came the free market boom. I quickly finished my PhD and got into the trading business.
In the second novel of this collection, „Diary of a Cowboy Outfit,“ you mention at least 10 shadow companies that were incorporated in the business. What did you guys sell?
Mainly dumptrucks to the oil and gas industry. But everything really, or at least they tried. On the side, I also exported jeeps and motorcycles, traded in some modern art.
And, you got rich that way?
Not rich, but I wasn`t a penniless student anymore. But the actual work of trading didn`t interest me that much. It was more the dramatic and aesthetic dimensions.
In what sense dramatic?
For example, the Izhmash Kombinat produced not only motorcycles - that we wanted to export to Latin America - but also the AK47 assault rifle. The export manager handled both portfolios so he also casually suggested an arms deal. It was a little out of the blue. We wisely refused to go there.
How could a 28 year old scholar endure more than five minutes of petty commerce?
It was pretty easy. Again, the dramatic aspects. It was a crazy period of charlatans, hustlers, speculators, fortune hunters. It was, of course, a bit of a con. No Russians at the time had a Western elite education. That window has closed. Now Russian Harvard MBAs and what not have replaced the foreigners.
Before you got into trade, you did some ethnographic research. During the Soviet period, was there even material available about the minorities on the periphery?
In the Siberian provinces, hardly anything. I had to do a lot of research after the fact. From that process, I stumbled upon a lot of literature written by political exiles. In Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha-Yakutia, where the novel Platon`s Tundra takes place, there were many Czarist-era exiles who then rose to prominence after the Revolution.
The countless books and people mentioned in Platon`s Tundra?
Are mostly real, but not entirely. Within the plot, I fleshed out a kind of imagined biography of Platon Oyunski, the Yakut revolutionary and author of the epic poem, The Red Shaman.
Judging by your novels, you had a good time in Russia.
I had to distill a lot of life experience to get a grip on this Virgilian tour through a crazy arctic capital, and then filter it all through shamanic fragments. Afterall, the Shaman is a dancer, a healer, a musician, a prophet – all the things that today have been taken up by art in a more secular vein.
Why did you go to Siberia, and not to Moscow?
I needed to visit something primal. I wanted to get to know the Siberia that socialist realism conveyed with so much awe and wonder. After a fairly intellectual period, it was maybe a wilful regression into childhood, or a regression toward a raw masculinity: Heavy Industry, Dump Trucks, Metal, Dirt and Power. That had also excited Mayakovsky. It was a fascinating experience.
Siberia, as you mention in Platon`s Tundra, was a „morally ambiguous universe“. Your narrator goes through some rather extreme situations.
Masculine primal release is not censored in Siberia, it`s almost expected. For an American raised in bland suburbia, it was a little eye-opening. Some of the experiences left a stale aftertaste. The novels accent that quite a bit.
Later you were involved in shuttle diplomacy in Georgia and Abkhazia.
It was a little dicey in the war zones. We flew all over the country, met Shevardnadze a few times. Both sides were a little fanatical. And the naivete of the NGO community was a little disappointing.
Did you do much creative writing before the two novels?
No, just academic writing. Actually, for 7 years in my 20s, I didn`t read any fiction whatsoever. While I was an undergraduate, Gyorgy Lukacs sort of got in my head and convinced me that novelists were just wannabe philosophers who can`t express themselves clearly so they need to invent set-pieces and characters. So I just read substantive stuff (laughter). As I started writing, I just figured the narrator`s voice would sort itself out. Such was the case, but certainly not right from the beginning.
You won a prize for the manuscript out in Hollywood. But the book has not yet appeared in English. It`s very rare for an unpublished English manuscript to come out first in Germany? How did you come across Enzensberger`s Die Andere Bibliothek?
A friend told me about it, and so I sent Enzensberger the synopsis. He then read the manuscript, suggested some changes, and then agreed to publish it. For the New York houses, it was maybe a little too European, perhaps in the sense of an unredeemable and politically incorrect degeneracy. Who knows? I don`t offer the usual plots. But I wanted, at all costs, to avoid what a lot of aspiring novelists feel they have to do: hit the reader over the head with fanciful plots and showy erudition. If it ever appears in The US or England – fine. But the Continent is big enough for me.
You recently wrote a work of nonfiction.
It`s called „Marx in a Post Communist Era: On Poverty, Corruption and Banality". In Russia, I saw the consequences of a free markets without a safety net – exploitation, class conflict, brutal poverty.
The narrator of „Platons Tundra“ praises at the end of an “ecstatic” novel, the ecstatic elements within Western Christianity.
„The Final Slum“ is the English working title of „Sibirischer Schwindel“. „To slum it“ means: to seek out the exotic in far away lands or the nearby ghetto. If you`ve done the final slum, then you can go back home. My narrator realizes at the end that there`s a lot of ecstatic beauty in Christian art, in Bach for example, or the austere mysticism of the north German organ composer Buxtehude. You don`t always have to travel very far.
(translation and edit by Stefan Sullivan)