From the Sun City of Dreams to the City of Angels: A Conversation with Belarusian Artist and Author Artur Klinau

Can you comment on how the conditions of literary production in Belarus in 2017 differ from Soviet times? As you know, the Soviet empire strove to create an ideal communist society across all its territory. The original artist has nothing to offer. It just crossed my mind that the models and schemes of the picaresque dictatorship were invented in Belarus in the 1990s. Only an artist would do that. 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. The system that we have today stands in stark contrast to the state-sponsored literary production that many Belarusian writers enjoyed under Soviet rule. They are living among us, they resemble us, and they have children of their own. This journey is not simply geographic, it’s also existential. I dedicated one issue of pARTisan to Jewish topics. 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? The word expels the artist little by little. 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. Like Marc Chagall, Blazhenny was born in a Jewish family near Vitebsk, only two decades after the great painter. What about the Warner Brothers, who were born in a small village near Vitebsk? Between endless cups of cheap coffee and cigarettes, their four-person team plans some of the country’s most subversive intellectual publications. My people simply do not like to be looked at. To paraphrase Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the recently deceased Russian poet, in Belarus an author is more than an author. At the end, these two trajectories intersect at a point of horror. The opportunities seem infinite, so long as you follow the right rabbit and open the right door. If we are to speak about the role of the artist in general, this is how I see it. I myself grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and remember the old people speaking Yiddish along Shevchenko Boulevard in Minsk. This is why nobody hears or knows much about the Belarusians these days. It feels as if I’ve already read this book. 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. 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. 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. How do Belarusians feel about Russian aggression in Ukraine? What about Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature? I expected to see a lot more signs of materialism and of imperial domination over here. His words carried weight. What would have happened to Marc Chagall had he not gone to Paris? Relief panels from the Minsk Central Supermarket. How does she fit into the paradigm? After all, Hollywood is the capital of show biz. It recreated the grand decoration of an ideal society, and it needed an artist to carry out this task. 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. Belarusians also take pride in their “partisan” mentality, honed during World War II, when common citizens took up arms to resist the invading Germans. 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. The Sun City of Dreams is useful not only for understanding Belarusians, but also post-Soviet people in general. My main impression from three weeks in Los Angeles is that it is an insanely charming city. Run by a mustachioed dictator, this tiny post-Soviet republic with a population equal to that of greater Los Angeles can boast of Svetlana Alexievich (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015), the renowned underground Belarus Free Theatre, and the steady export of tractors and émigrés. Our people’s character is strange and hard to grasp. How does your work as a writer connect to the political realities you live in? The postmodern dictatorship does not create its own grand style. I met Artur Klinau, a tall, bespectacled man with graying hair, at a modest cafe in the building of Minsk’s Central Supermarket. 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. 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). LA reminds me most of Alice in Wonderland. 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. 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 political model we are discussing is very interesting from a literary perspective. All of a sudden, we learned that post-Soviet man is still there — that these people did not magically vanish. Glorified in many novels and films set during the war, this partisan mentality also manifests itself in the clandestine trade of counterfeit goods that are banned in Russia and in the publication of pARTisan, an almanac of contemporary culture which Klinau has edited since 2002. Mayer have founded his MGM studio in Minsk, where he was born? In every town, large or small, we discover some elements, some fragments of this utopia. Because society, which is based on the “norm,” is bound to expel him. Many of them recoiled from reality upon waking — especially since, for many, this awakening was forced upon them. And one can understand why. What is the secret of its popularity? I recently published an album of Zhdanov’s work, but there is not even a Wikipedia page or a reliable biography for him. Like any postmodern oeuvre, it cites previous styles. It’s really a novel about an artist in contemporary society. 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. It means that they are guided by something larger than money or fame. He is a lot more critical than the boy. It is a part of our history and culture that we simply cannot ignore. Because every classical dictatorship strives for the creation of its own monumental style. 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. His second book, Shalom: A War Novel (2011), is already a cult classic. Returning to Belarus after some years in the States, I immediately felt at home with the young experimental artists that surrounded pARTisan. Would they be able to relate to the modern Belarusian project? A dictatorship of this type does not resemble the black-and-white dictatorships of the past. It’s not an objective narrative authored by a historian, or by an architectural or cultural critic. Then other regimes started copying them with great pleasure. And, of course, the biggest concentration of these fragments can be found in Moscow, the main altar of Soviet society. The artist is moving toward existential solitude. I’m not suggesting that Trump copied his political technology from our president, Alexander Lukashenko, but the similarities are striking. Of course, at the moment, there is a lot of fear among Belarusians regarding a possible Russian invasion. There were times when Belarusian cities were 70 percent Jewish. What Andrew does is test our tolerance for transgression, for “otherness.” And the further East he travels, the less this “otherness” is tolerated. But in our country, under a picaresque dictatorship, the artist has neither an honorable museification nor a decent retirement fund. Have you ever seen truly clandestine characters raise their voices to represent themselves? 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. You can easily substitute the artist with a political strategist. Sure. But I found LA to be very democratic and open. While we’re on the subject of the picaresque, can you tell us about your novel Shalom (2011)? But even in the 1970s, the presence of Jewish culture was a lot more palpable. This cafe, adorned with Socialist Realist relief panels, serves as the de facto office space for pARTisan. I think that my readers like the emotional component of my examination of this ideal city. In essence, this is a group of people who underwent a gigantic experiment — they had been through some kind of dream lab. Is the Western media’s cliché of Belarus as “the last dictatorship of Europe” justified? JULY 15, 2017

ARTUR KLINAU is informally known as Maestro among the many artists and writers of Belarus, the country I call home. He is also a publisher, an entrepreneur, a promoter, a bookseller, and a critic. This is the essence of our picaresque dictatorship. Based on several estimates, the Nazis killed about 800,000 Belarusian Jews in the World War II. You’ve spent three weeks in Los Angeles. Or take Alexey Zhdanov, an underground artist and poet who was working around the same time. At least this was the case with the former Soviet Empire. And whatever challenges their market may pose, I doubt that any Western writers would agree to work under our conditions. These are the memoirs of a boy who was born in the Sun City of Dreams. Or perhaps the visual codes are blurred and harder to decode, and the wealth is hidden elsewhere, far from sight. 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. Could Louis B. 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? 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. I would also like to organize a Klezmer festival in Kaptaruny, an art village that I built near the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. One can identify its genre as “reality literature.” This is neither a fiction nor a documentary novel. 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. 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. Tell us, how does it feel to be a Belarusian author today? 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 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. Virtually none of that population is left now, and not only because of emigration, but because of the Holocaust. They are hobbits in their essence, akin to the hard-working hobbits from J. It is nothing compared to what is happening across the Russian border. The Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA invited Klinau to be their artist-in-residence in May 2017. ¤
Sasha Razor is a PhD student at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. The rediscovery of this poet influenced the development of poetry in our country. 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. 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. (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. And I agree, in a way. Both belonged to the so-called “Minsk school of poetry,” which is virtually unknown outside of Belarus. Tell us a little bit more about Belarus. If we only had a classical dictatorship, then the artist would be very much in demand. You also draw on picaresque elements in your own writing. That was just one wave of migrations during the crazy 20th century. ¤
SASHA RAZOR: You came from the Republic of Belarus. This is what I mean by a cemetery of “unknown geniuses.”
Now, let’s examine the trajectory of people who left the country. Let me begin by answering that Belarus is not exactly a dictatorship — nor is it the last one — nor is it yet European. Do you think this picaresque dictatorship is unique to Belarus, or do we see certain picaresque tendencies elsewhere in the world? The following interview is a result of this cultural exchange. Some people say that I wrote a manifesto of visibility for Belarusians. Vladimir Putin took it one step further and invented picaresque wars; they also call them hybrid wars. What we have today is a large group living among us who would like to fall back under the spell. In this sense, Svetlana Alexievich’s oeuvre captures the essence of the time we live in. The artist undergoes an honorable museification; our civilization condemns him or her to retirement. This book is popular in Europe and has been translated into German, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, and French. My latest novel [Shklatara, 2013] is about the relationship between a postmodernist dictatorship and its flip side, the postmodernist underground. 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. Tolkien’s books, who prefer to stay out of sight. R. 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. It describes an ideal city, a communist utopia built in the center of Minsk. President Trump seems to have come straight out of a picaresque novel as well. Most of the people you’ve just mentioned are Jewish. What do you think of LA? When he renamed the center of Minsk the “Sun City,” the name caught on with tourists. They fled the territory of what is now contemporary Belarus at the turn of the 20th century. 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. This briefcase is the subject of my new novel, a sequel to Shalom. Or Chaim Soutine? Of course, the Belarus in which I live is more complex. Our national archetype is the partisan — a clandestine person who hides in the forest and fights his oppressors. So I can only admire people who still want to play this game. He wrote on religious themes in the voice of a Holy Fool, although his poetic diction is theomachist in its essence. There is a place right next to it named Lyntupy, a former shtetl. The main mysteries of our civilization happen elsewhere, without his or her participation. I see it as a story of continuity with many disruptions. Forget such Latinates as honorarium, sanatorium, and the like. I was also thrilled by my reception at UCLA, at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures. The reader discovers the nightmarish reality behind the utopian facade. 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. They, too, would have joined the ranks of the “unknown geniuses,” and, most likely, would have perished in Stalin’s purges or the Holocaust. Therefore, it needs no original creator, just someone who knows how to manipulate the old content. Take, for example, Russia. The artist was a pivotal participant in this mystery. 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. 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. Happy denizens of the Sun City of Dreams. Or Kirk Douglas, whose parents left Chausy, a miserable town near Mogilev? The book describes Minsk lovingly, because the boy believes, with childlike sincerity, that he lives in the Country of Happiness. R. Under certain circumstances, these post-Soviet people can become dangerous. My protagonist, Andrew, is a sculptor from Mogilev who puts on a German spiked helmet, a Pickelhaube, and never takes it off. It was great to see how much interest UCLA students and professors expressed in Belarus and in my own work. So what is the role of the artist who lives and works under a postmodern picaresque dictatorship? As a partisan, you can foil the entire operation by exposing your identity. (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.