Zakhar Prilepin: You have to constantly prove your worth in literature

Zakhar Prilepin is a member of the National Bolshevik Party, which is banned in Russia, and a former employee of the OMON (the “Special Purpose Mobile Unit,” or more commonly – the riot police) who took part in the Chechnya conflict.  He announced his arrival on the Russian literary scene in 2004 with his novel “Pathology” and now has more than 10 books and a plethora of prestigious literary prizes to his name. His latest novel, “The Cloister,” tells the story of the Solovki prison camp and was acclaimed as book of the year in Russia. Just a few days ago, it won the Big Book Prize for the best book of any genre written in Russian.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: What is it like to be the author of the book of the year?

Zakhar Prilepin: I’m an adult and react calmly to those types of things. There is a new author of the year every year. Literature is a field in which you constantly have to prove your worth until you’ve gained some kind of critical standing.

RBTH: What is the secret behind “The Cloister’s” success?

Z.P.: I think it’s partly connected with the fact that the book wasn’t read as a history of camps from 100 years ago. It’s a novel about everything that concerns a Russian: relationships between men and women, free will and servitude, the relationship between man and the heavens above him. Sergei Yesenin once said that “the big picture is seen from a distance.” We have moved a short distance and can understand something about our present selves by looking at those times. Also, it’s just a good book.

RBTH: You have been translated into many languages, but you are a “very Russian” writer – does that make it hard for foreigners to understand your work?

Z.P.: That’s sort of a myth – largely a Russian one – that the world isn’t interested in us and our provincial problems. But there is no such thing as universal literature, besides literature about humanoids that no one has ever seen.
Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are our private sufferings, after all. Maybe that’s why foreigners are a little more enthusiastic about Dostoyevsky than we are – he reveals our essence, and foreigners judge Russians based on Dostoyevsky’s characters.

RBTH: Can you give any advice to people who translate your work?

Z.P.: Don’t pay attention to everyday Russian particularities – just translate them so they make sense to the reader. It is often more important to capture the spirit rather than create a textual match.
There’s a good example from my very first translation into another language – “Pathology,” which was translated into French in 2006. The translated version stated that the OMON fighters in Grozny in 1996 ate “sardines,” whereas the direct translation should have been “anchovies.” They also drove in a “Jeep,” where the Russian version had them in a “Kozelok” [the common nickname for the Russian-made GAZ-69 light truck]. At first it felt strange, but the translator explained that only poor people eat sardines in France, and they don’t have the Kozelok, so I realized she was right. The most important thing is that it makes sense.

RBTH: Are there any plans for new translations into English? So far only “Sin” and “Sankya” have been translated.

Z.P.: According to my agent, there is very serious interest in “The Cloister” in the United States.

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