“In the beginning, was the image.”
NER Editor Carolyn Kuebler talks with Maxim Matusevich, author of “The Road to Battambang,” about how this professor made a daunting, yet natural, leap to fiction last year—in his second language.
CK: Your bio tells us that you were born in Leningrad, USSR, and moved to the United States in 1991, and that you’re now a professor of history at Seton Hall University. But in the past year you’ve published two pieces of fiction: “The Road to Battambang” in our current issue, and “Arthur or Night on Earth” in Kenyon Review Online. How did you come to fiction writing, and how is it related to your scholarly research?
MM: I started writing fiction just a bit over a year ago even though I had long felt that one day I wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to write. Growing up in Russia I wrote poetry (like most of my friends in the 1980s Leningrad) and later I published occasional journalistic pieces in my native Russian. But until this past year all of my English-language publications were academic. For me, transitioning to fiction writing was daunting but somehow also the most natural thing in the world. In a way, for someone who is used to footnoting every other sentence and checking his most creative tendencies for the sake of historical accuracy this has been a liberating experience. At the same time the habit of referencing sources and drawing on historical evidence has helped me (I hope) not to stray too far away from the truth. In both of my recently published stories I tried to be very precise in depicting the landscapes, historical circumstances, and relevant details of particular settings. Being a historian means that you assume responsibility for the integrity of your writing. I also tend to see my characters as connected to larger historical narratives, they are always participants in a bigger story.
CK: “The Road to Battambang” displays a powerful historical consciousness as it looks back on the period of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and treats events of great violence and trauma, but it does so very quietly, through your lead character, Mme Rancourt. What drew you to this character, and why Cambodia? How did this story root itself in your imagination?
MM: My wife and I traveled in Cambodia last year and it turned out to be one of the more meaningful trips I have ever taken. In my research and teaching I have been drawn to subjects that defy narrow geographical and topical boundaries. Over the years I have taught courses in African History, but also History of the Cold War and thematic courses on Global Slavery and, especially, Totalitarianism. It may have something to do with my personal background but I am drawn to the subject of totalitarianism—totalitarian societies, totalitarian habits and rituals, both offend and fascinate me. I knew the history of the Khmer Rouge rule and the Cambodian genocide fairly well, and going to Cambodia was also a way for me to experience a society that had gone through a profound historical trauma.
When in Cambodia I was always on a lookout for the signs and scars of the past horror. The weird thing is that these signs are not immediately noticeable, at least not until you figure out where and how to look for them. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh became a revelation in this regard: it’s really quite remarkable, very understated, but the exhibit in its entirety is emotionally intense. We spent several hours just walking through the various buildings and sections of the museum—a former middle school converted into a notorious torture site under the Khmer Rouge. It was there, on the premises of the former Khmer Rouge prison that I first thought of Mme Rancourt, her character inspired by the story of one particular prisoner—an enigmatic young woman, who did not survive the Khmer Rouge rule.
I never met anyone who was exactly like Mme Rancourt, but somehow it felt that I knew her even before this character came to me. To me, she is not a foreigner, not the proverbial Graham Greene’s Phuong, who is unknowable and full of mystery. I really tried not to “orientalize” her, not to present her as an enigma rendered to us through a Western gaze, as someone whom we can observe but cannot comprehend. To me, she is very real and not all that mysterious. In some ways, she is a fellow immigrant, who is used to compartmentalizing different parts of her life, to performing a delicate balancing act between her past and her present. She also subverts pop cultural clichés about what it actually means to survive a profound personal trauma and then deal with it in a way that is not like yet another Hollywood script. In that regard in particular, I see her as almost a family member.
While writing about Mme Rancourt I was thinking of my late father, who as a 21-year-old disabled man traveled across the war-torn country from the Urals to Moscow, hitching rides on trucks and freight trains. I was thinking of my late grandmother who left the besieged Leningrad in 1941 with her three children in tow, saying the last good-bye to her husband whom she would never see again. I was thinking of my late uncle who survived the first horrific winter during the siege of Leningrad, buried his girlfriend who had succumbed to starvation, then volunteered to go to the front. Twice wounded he ended the war just east of Berlin. These three individuals were dear to me, all three lived through momentous historical and personal dramas and all three dealt remarkably well with their difficult past. They were genuinely happy people—kind, generous, not self-absorbed. There is a lesson to be learned there, I’m just trying to figure out what it is . . .
Our popular culture is very good at generating prefabricated notions and scripts, which people readily internalize and reenact. Through popular entertainment and fads we are bombarded with simplistic models of human behavior, from which millions of people are hesitant to stray. In my writing, I’m attempting to overcome these clichés by conjuring up human stories that are worthy of genuine human experience in all its complexity and ambiguity. Thus Mme Rancourt is both conventional and transgressive: she can love two men without betraying either one of them, she respects her own past but remains unsentimental about it, she is not a cloying romantic and she eschews the expected commitments to identity, she is certainly not into navel-gazing. She cannot be assessed with ready-made dichotomies and simplistic morality tests, she (like the rest of us) is too human for such oversimplification.
CK: You earned your academic degrees in American universities, and clearly have a strong command of English. Do you also write in Russian? Do you think differently in different languages, or find them useful in different ways?
MM: I sometimes write journalistic and opinion pieces in Russian and I used to write poetry but these days I’m more comfortable writing in English, at least I feel like in English I have more of my own voice. At the same time English remains my second language and I speak mostly Russian with my family. Also I would never dream of writing poetry in English, somehow it feels completely forbidding. And, frankly, over the years I have lost much of my appetite for poetry. I often hear that people’s public and literary personas change when they switch from one language to another. But I’d like to think that I can remain the same in both languages.
CK: Your story contains some very striking visual images. I’m thinking in particular of Mr. Samang’s elaborate tuk-tuk, with its Japanese cherry wood seats and red and white leather tassels. Also of the thousands of bats exiting the cave at sunset, the “gigantic breathing canvas” of them. Are visual images important catalysts to your imagination?
MM: Yes, the images are of great importance, they often come first. This particular story really grew out of such images. We love to travel and whenever I find myself in a new place I always give myself to the new sensations: the smells, the colors, the landscapes, human diversity. Thoughts, ideas, interpretations, understanding—they will all come later, superimposed on the visual canvas. I spent some time in West Africa, where I did my dissertation research and years later whenever I think about that experience I first see three or four images that are firmly lodged in my mind, they are anchors for the rest of my memories of that time. Or another example: I served the mandatory two years in the Soviet army but, again, whenever I think back on that particular period I immediately see the cracked asphalt of a railway platform in a small provincial town—cigarette butts strewn all over the place, tiny dust-coated weeds sprouting to life against overwhelming odds . . . just another anchor for two years’ worth of memories. So, yes: “In the beginning was the image.”
CK: Are there any particular authors you consider to be your writerly predecessors? What have you been reading recently, and/or teaching?
MM: As a teenager I read obsessively—there was a virtual cult of books in my family, and this fixation on reading was, I think, quite typical for the members of our social class, which I can loosely describe as the urban-based Soviet intelligentsia. All the usual suspects, of course: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Goncharov, Chekhov . . . somehow I managed to fall in love with all of them, even with the preachy “hedgehog” Tolstoy, whose tendency to hit you over the head with same idea—over and over and over again—can exhaust the most patient reader.
I do have one favorite Russian writer though and one favorite book (by that writer)—Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. If I had been condemned to reading and rereading just one book for the rest of my life, that would be it. Another author whose absurdist vision, unique sense of humor and genuine humanism resonate with me is barely known in the West, even though he spent the last decade of his life in New York. His name is Sergey Dovlatov, his prose is singularly accessible and deceptively simple. He died fairly young and his novels tend to be slim but they pack a vision of late-Soviet and immigrant life that millions of Russian speakers can readily claim as their own. When I’m writing about my own past or about Russia I’m constantly aware of his influence on me, it’s almost uncanny and sometimes even distracting because I’m fearful of losing my own voice.
Having disposed with the Russian classics (and growing up in Russia you cannot easily skip that particular stage) I developed a deep affection for “big” Western novels—English (Dickens, Galsworthy, etc.), French (Stendhal, Maupassant, Flaubert), German/Austrian (Fallada, Thomas, and Klaus Mann, Zweig). Later, especially after having moved to the United States, I became a committed fan of American letters. Reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in its original English was a revelation to me, I still think it’s one of the most profound and linguistically virtuosic books I have ever read. Of later authors, I love Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, William Styron, John Updike, Richard Yates, Ralph Ellison, Charles Bukowski (I know, I know . . .), and others. Over the past couple of decades I have become more and more interested in postcolonial literatures or rather in the books that touch upon the issue of transition from traditionalism to modernity. The abiding tension between traditional values and the demands of the modern life is the source of great personal (and scholarly) fascination for me. Of the authors who have had an especially powerful influence on my thinking about these issues I can single out V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz, Meja Mwangi (who is not well known in the West), and Edward Said.
Lately, as a side effect to developing a new course on the Cold War I have succumbed to reading spy novels and of the authors toiling in this genre no one, in my modest opinion, comes close to the estimable John le Carré.
Read an excerpt of “The Road to Battambang“
Maxim Matusevich was born in Leningrad, USSR, and moved to the United States in 1991. He is a professor of history at Seton Hall University, where he directs the Russian and East European Studies Program. He has published extensively on the history of African–Russian relations.