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Russian Hybrids: Identity in the Translingual Writings of Andreï Makine, Wladimir Kaminer, and Gary Shteyngart

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


Authors writing in a language other than their native tongue have become a common phenomenon in an era of increased international mobility. This article is devoted to three Russian-born émigré writers—Andreï Makine (b. 1957), Wladimir Kaminer (b. 1967), and Gary Shteyngart (b. 1972)—all of whom have achieved literary stardom with books written in French, German, and English, respectively. Although each of the three authors has a distinctive style and ideological position, in his own way each projects a “Russian” persona to the western public. Using the notion of cultural hybridity, Adrian Wanner explores the various strategies these authors have adopted in fashioning an identity for themselves that is tailored to meet the demands of the reading public in their respective host nations while exploiting the cachet of the Russian “brand name” in today's global literary economy.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2008

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1. For a discussion of bilingual Russian writers in the first half of the twentieth century, see Beaujour, Elizabeth Klosty, Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the “First“ Emigration (Ithaca, 1989)Google Scholar.

2. For a survey of translingual literature in the twentieth century, see Kellman, Steven G., The Translingual Imagination (Lincoln, 2000)Google Scholar.

3. In her recent book on translation, Emily Apter makes the following comment on translingual writers: “Producing work directly in a non-native tongue [ … ] , many artists seem to bypass the act of translation, subsuming it as problematic within a larger project of cultural or self-representation. In this picture, ‘global’ signifies not so much the conglomeration of world cultures arrayed side by side in their difference, but rather a problembased monocultural aesthetic agenda that elicits transnational engagement.” Apter, Emily, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton, 2006), 99 Google Scholar.

4. Le testament français was actually Makine's fourth book. His first three novels ﹛La Fille d'un héros de I'Union soviétique, 1990; Confession d'un porte-drapeau déchu, 1992; and Au temps du fleuve Amour, 1994) initially had little resonance, but they were reissued in large print runs after the triumph of Le testament français. Since then Makine has published six more novels: Le Crime d'Olga Arbélina (1998), Requiem pour I'Est (2000), La Musique d'une vie (2001), La Terre et le del defacquesDorme (2003), LaFemme qui attendait (2004), and L'amour humain (2006). Makine's novels are available in English in the translation of Geoffrey Strachan. The translation of Le testament frangais garnered the Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year as well as the Boston Book Review Fiction Prize in 1997.

5. Kaminer, Vladimir, Russendisko, trans, from the German by Klimeniuk, N. and Kivel’, I. (Moscow, 2003)Google Scholar; Kaminer, Wladimir, Russian Disco, trans. Hulse, Michael (London, 2002)Google Scholar.

6. Frische Goldjungs (2001), Militärmusik (2001), Schönhauser Allee (2001), Die Reisenach Trulala (2002), Helden des Alltags (2002), Mein deutsches Dschungelbuch (2003), Ich mache mir Sorgen, Mama (2004), Karaoke (2005), Küche totalitär: Das Kochbuch des Sozialismus (2006), Ich bin kein Berliner:Ein Reiseführer für faule Touristen (2007), and Mein Leben im Schrebergarten (2007). Kaminer's books are published by Goldmann/Manhattan in Munich, a subsidiary of Random House.

7. Andrew Wachtel has defined pseudo-autobiography as “a first-person retrospective narrative based on autobiographical material in which the author and the protagonist are not die same person.” See Wachtel, Andrew, The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth (Stanford, 1990), 3 Google Scholar. For a discussion of this genre in twentieth-century Russian literature, including a chapter on Makine's he testament français, see Petion, Juliette M., “Life into Art: The Pseudo-Autobiography in Post-Revolutionary Russian Literature“ (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1999)Google Scholar.

8. It is unclear whether the person who taught Makine French was in fact his grandmother, as suggested by Le testament français. Makine himself, in earlier interviews, insisted that he indeed learned French from his grandmother, but more recendy he has referred to the woman who taught him French as simply an acquaintance. On this, see Nazarova, Nina, Andreï Makine, deux facettes de son oeuvre (Paris, 2005), 14 Google Scholar.

9. Makin, Andreï, “Frantsuzskoe zaveshchanie,” trans, from the French by Iakhnina, Iu. and Shakhovskaia, N., Inostrannaia literatura, 1996, no. 12: 18127 Google Scholar.

10. Zlobina, Maia, “Zarubezhnaia kniga o Rossii: V poiskakh utrachennykh mgnovenii,“ Novyi mir, 1996, no. 10: 242-45Google Scholar.

11. Tolstaya, Tatyana, “Love Story,” New York Review of Books 44, no. 18 (20 November 1997): 34 Google Scholar.

12. Tolstaia, Tat'iana, “Russkii chelovek na randevu,” Znamia, 1998, no. 6: 209 Google Scholar. This essay was later reprinted in Tolstaia's essay collection Den': Lichnoe (Moscow, 2002), 342- 79. Tolstaia's two conflicting reviews of Makine's novel have been subjected to a rather unflattering analysis by Andrew Wachtel. As he points out, Tolstaia provides her American and Russian audiences with the clichés that they are accustomed to hear about each otiier, thus practicing herself what she denounces in Makine. See Wachtel, Andrew, Remaining Relevant after Communism: The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe (Chicago, 2006), 146-49Google Scholar.

13. Makine himself later complained that the novel was translated in a “Stakhanovite“ fashion. See Anna Pustyntseva, “U kazhdogo svoe dykhanie: Interv'iu s Andreem Makinym.“ Russkaia mysl', 9-15 April 1998. For a detailed comparison of the Russian translation with the French original, see Baleevskikh, K. B., “Skhodstvo i razlichie russkoi i frantsuzskoi stilevykh traditsii v perevode romana Andreïa Makina ‘Frantsuzskoe zaveshchanie,'” Vestnik VGU, 2003, no. 1:8893 Google Scholar.

14. A useful survey of Makine's reception in Russia up to 2003 can be found in Ruth Diver, “Andreï Makine Disinherited: The Russian Reception of Le Testamentfrançais” (MA thesis, University of Auckland, 2003).

15. “I read the book myself, and found it completely monstruous. It is translated into a language that is neither Russian nor German, but some kind of plastic computer language. It is completely impossible to understand what the point of the story is.” Interview with Radio Liberty, 13 December 2003, at (last consulted 23 May 2008).

16. Elena Svedova, “Puteshestvie v Tru-lia-lia s Vladimirom Kaminerom: Kak moskovskii zvukotekhnik stal krupnym nemetskim pisatelem,” Sovershenno sekretno, no. 8, August 2002 at (last consulted 23 May 2008).

17. Shteingart, Gari, Prikliucheniia russkogo debiutanta, trans. Poletskaia, Eleny (Moscow, 2004)Google Scholar.

18. Peris, Irina, “Istorii novykh immigrantov,” Russkii zhurnal, 4 October 2002 at (last consulted 23 May 2006)Google Scholar.

19. Taim Aut Peterburg, 26 April 2005 at (last consulted 23 May 2008). Of course, according to his Soviet passport, Shteyngart would indeed not have been classified as “russkii.“

20. Mikhail Vizel', “Prikliucheniia russkogo debiutanta,” Taim Aut Moskva, 5 October 2005 at (last consulted 23 May 2008). The characterization of Shteyngart as a “normal American” is clearly at variance with the image that he projects of his alter ego Vladimir Girshkin. As he writes: “Were Vladimir and his parents Petersburg snobs? Perhaps. Bad Russians? Likely. Bad Jews? Most certainly. Normal Americans? Not even close.” Shteyngart, Gary, The Russian Debutante's Handbook: A Novel (New York, 2002), 92 Google Scholar.

21. Khabarov, Georgii, “Smes’ frantsuzskogo s krasnoiarskim,” Sovershenno sekretno, 2003, no. 7 at (last consulted 23 May 2008)Google Scholar.

22. On this, see Young, Robert J. C., Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race (London, 1995)Google Scholar.

23. Cf. Rushdie's characterization of his novel The Satanic Verses as a celebration of hybridity: “Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.” Rushdie, Salman, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (London, 1991), 394 Google Scholar. Emphasis in the original.

24. For a useful survey, see Papastergiadis, Nikos, “Tracing Hybridity in Theory,” The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization and Hybridity (Cambridge, Eng., 2000), 168-95Google Scholar.

25. Friedman, Susan Stanford, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (Princeton, 1998), 9293 Google Scholar.

26. Marcel Ferrand has drawn up a whole list of Makine's idiosyncratic usage of French prepositions, articles, adverbs, verbs, phraseology, and punctuation, which he explains with the interference of Russian. See Ferrand, , “Le français d'un prix Goncourt vu par un russisant,” La revue russe 20 (2001): 8397 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a (rare) example of Russian interference in Kaminer's German, see Wanner, Adrian, “Wladimir Kaminer: A Russian Picaro Conquers Germany,” Russian Review 64, no. 4 (October 2005): 595 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27. Kaminer also makes use of this word in Militärmusik, where a young Afghan who has been sold into the Soviet Army by his fellow tribesmen is said to have been born in the town of Chui, pronounced “khui” in German (Militdrmusik, 179). Since the meaning of the name is never explained, it remains hidden to the vast majority of Kaminer's German readers. The word functions as a sort of “insider joke” accessible only to those who know Russian.

28. Given that Shteyngart has lived in the United States since the age of seven, his accent in English is, not surprisingly, negligible. He claims that he lost his Russian accent at age fourteen. See Shteyngart, Gary, “Sixty-Nine Cents,” New Yorker, 3 and 10 September 2007, 70 Google Scholar.

29. See on this Nazarova, , Andreï Makine, 1516 Google Scholar.

30. This is not necessarily the attitude of all translingual writers. For example, the Russian-born Olga Grushin, author of the novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006), declared in an interview in February 2006 that it was her conscious intention “to imbue [her] English with a Russian feel” in order to “convey a very Russian sensibility overall.“ See “10 Questions with Olga Grushin” at (last consulted 23 May 2008) .

31. See Makine, , La terre et le del de Jacques Dorme (Paris, 2003), 215 Google Scholar.

32. Thierry Laurent, in a recent monograph on Makine, refers to this idiom as “un français déstructuré et abâtardi” (a hybrid, mongrelized French). Laurent, , Andreï Makine, Russe en exil (Paris, 2006), 58 Google Scholar.

33. Makine, Andreï, Le testament français (Paris, 1995), 35 Google Scholar; Makine, Andreï, Dreams of My Russian Summers, trans. Strachan, Geoffrey (New York, 1997), 191 Google Scholar, and Makine, , Le testament français, 275 Google Scholar.

34. Catherine Argand, “Andreï Makine: La musique d'une vie,” Lire, February 2001 at (last consulted 23 May 2008).

35. This does not mean that Makine considers French per se superior to Russian. For him, the appeal of the French language lies precisely in its foreignness, which allows the writer a sort of “de-familiarization,” the principle of ostranenie promoted by die Russian formalists. On this, see Safran, Gabriella, “Andreï Makine's Literary Bilingualism and the Critics,” Comparative Literature 55, no. 3 (Summer 2003): 246-65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Rubins, Mariia, “Russko-frantsuzskaia proza Andreïa Makina,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 66 (2004): 208-29Google Scholar. In an interview with a Québécois newspaper, Makine declared himself an ad mirer of Viktor Shklovskii's concept of ostranenie. See Guylaine Massoutre, “'II faut être intolérant dans la littérature.’ Entretien avec Andreï’ Makine—La vie imprévisible,” Le Devoir, 25-26 March 2006 (last consulted 23 May 2008).

36. Makine, , Le testament français, 204 Google Scholar.

37. Argand, “Andreï Makine.“

38. Makine, Andreï, “La prose de I. A. Bounine: La poétique de la nostalgie” (PhD diss., Université Paris-Sorbonne, 1991)Google Scholar.

39. Andreï Iaroslavovich Makin, “Roman o detstve sovremennoi frantsuzskoi literature (70-80-e gody)” (Avtoreferat dissertatsii, Moscow State University, 1985), 18.

40. Argand, “Andreï Makine.“

41. In his 2003 interview with Sovershenno Sekretno, Makine mentioned his “enormous respect” for Solzhenitsyn and noted his unhappiness with the way the writer was treated by Russian critics after his return to Moscow. See Khabarov, “Smes’ frantsuzskogo s krasnoiarskim.“

42. Ibid.

43. Makine, , Dreams of my Russian Summers, 194 Google Scholar; Makine, , Le testament français, 279 Google Scholar.

44. See Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture (London, 1994), 37 Google Scholar.

45. Robitaille, Louis-Bernard, “Les écrivains migrateurs,” L'actualité 22, no. 8 (15 May 1997): 78 Google Scholar.

46. Andreï Makine, CetteFrance qu'on oublied'aimer (Paris, 2006). Ironically, this seems to be the only one of his books that has somewhat endeared Makine to his former compatriots. His assertion to the Paris correspondent of Izvestiia that French society has become similar to the Soviet Union has been widely circulated on the Russian Internet. See “Pisatel' Andreï Makin: ‘Frantsuzy voplotili v zhizn’ sovetskuiu model','” Izvestiia, 15 August 2006 at (last consulted 23 May 2008).

47. Laurent, , Andreï Makine, 14 Google Scholar.

48. Wladimir, and Kaminer, Olga, Kiülche totälitar: Das Kochbuch des Sozialismus (Munich, 2006)Google Scholar. On symbolic ethnicity, see the classic essay by Gans, Herbert J., “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America” (1979), in Sollors, Werner, ed., Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader (New York, 1996), 425-59CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49. Kaminer, Wladimir, Russendisko (Munich, 2000), 98 Google Scholar.

50. Kaminer's story “Ein verlorener Tag” illustrates his reluctance to engage the issue of his Jewishness. See on this Wanner, , “Wladimir Kaminer,” 592-93Google Scholar.

51. Shteyngart, , Russian Debutante's Handbook, 78 Google Scholar.

52. Zalewski, Daniel, “From Russia with Tsoris,” New York Times Magazine, 2 June 2002, 54 Google Scholar.

53. Radio Svoboda, 19 April 2005, at ut.041905.asp (last consulted 23 May 2008). This comment has become outdated very fast. While Shteyngart is indeed the first Russian immigrant since Nabokov to write a bestseller in English, it has already become clear that he will not be die last. In recent years, at least five other successful Russian immigrant authors have appeared on the American literary scene: Lara Vapnyar with There Are Jews in My House (2003) and Memoirs of a Muse (2006), David Bezmozgis with Natasha (2004), Olga Grushin with The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006), Anya Ulinich with Petropolis (2007), and Ellen Litman with The Last Chicken in America (2007).

54. See Corley, Liam, “'Just Another Ethnic Pol': Literary Citizenship in Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker” in Geok-lin, Lim Shirley et al., eds., Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits (Philadelphia, 2006), 63 Google Scholar.

55. Shteyngart, Gary, Absurdistan: A Novel (New York, 2006), 11 Google Scholar.

56. Ibid., 6.

57. “Stripped Books: Gary Shteyngart and Jeffrey Eugenides” at (last consulted 23 May 2008).

58. Shteyngart, , Russian Debutante's Handbook, 127 Google Scholar.

59. Shteyngart, , Absurdistan, 81 Google Scholar.

60. On this, see Corley, , “'Just Another Ethnic Pol,'” 65 Google Scholar.

61. It is important to note that the manipulation of cliches, understood in their literal meaning as photographic imprints, is also a crucial element of Makine's artistic technique, as Hélène Mélat and Maria Rubins have observed. Photographs play an important role in almost all of Makine's novels, where they serve both as an element of the plot and as a metaphor for how literature creates a fragmentary illusion of reality. See Melat, Helene, “Andreï Makine: Testament français ou Testament russe?La revue russe, no. 21 (2002): 4149 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially the section “Le cliche comme art de vivre et refuge” (44-45), and Rubins, , “Russko-frantsuzskaia proza Andreïa Makina,” 213-16Google Scholar. Makine's modernist self-reflectiveness, which hints at a deeper level of transcendence, becomes in Shteyngart and Kaminer a self-ironic postmodern game.

62. For example, both Shteyngart and Makine include a scene in their novels in which a little girl is offered to the narrator by her mother or grandmother for sexual gratification. Both narrators react with horror and moral revulsion. See Shteyngart, , Absurdistan, 287-88Google Scholar, and Makine, , La terre et le del de Jacques Dorme, 2627 Google Scholar.

63. “Eine sehr skurrile Gemeinde,” 10 February 2003 at,00.html (last consulted 23 May 2008).

64. Rossiiskaia gazeta, 8 October 2004 at (die misspelling “karminer” is correct; last consulted 23 May 2008).

65. Radio Svoboda, 19 April 2005; Natasha Grinberg, “Can't Live Long without Writing: A Conversation with Gary Stheyngart” at (last consulted 23 May 2008).

66. See “Stripped Books: Gary Shteyngart and Jeffrey Eugenides.“

67. “If the epic background of war and revolution brings Pasternak to mind, it is also true that Proust's esthetic quest in search of a timeless time can be perceived subtly woven into these pages.” Brombert, Victor, “Torn between Two Languages,” New York Times Book Review, 17 August 1997, 8 Google Scholar.

68. Massoutre, “'II faut être intolérant dans la litterature.’ Entretien avec Andreï Makine—La vie imprévisible.“

69. Aleksandrov, Nikolai, “'Rossiiu mozhno bylo ne zametit': Zavershila rabotu knizhnaia iarmarka vo Frankfurte,” Izvestiia, 17 March 2006 at (last consulted 23 May 2008)Google Scholar.

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