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June 7-14, 2006

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summer 2006 lit issue: beach reads | gary shteyngart | summer book picks


Gary Shteyngart

Heckuva Job, Gary!: The New York Times gave Shteyngart the cover of its book section for his literary skewering of contemporary politics and more.

Greetings From Absurdistan

By Rick Kleffel


Gary Shteyngart's hilarious satire Absurdistan is guaranteed to keep you in stitches, even as protagonist Misha Vainberg suffers far worse than stitches when he first arrives in American and endures a botched circumcision at the not-so-tender age of 18. Shteyngart is a brilliant prose stylist, and there's not a word to spare here. This is a densely packed story of a man who comes to America, leaves it and finds himself unable to return, trapped in the not-on-any-map titular country. Channeling Dostoyevsky via Hunter Thompson, Shteyngart's riotous novel is so strikingly funny because it is largely true. Based on his own experiences here and abroad, Absurdistan lives up to the witty invention of its title.

Metro Santa Cruz: Could you tell us a bit about what kind of things that happen in Absurdistan?

Gary Shteyngart: Well, I've spent a lot of time in Absurdistan, literally and figuratively, I think. In a sense we're all living in Absurdistan these days. It's the kind of country where I remember I was hanging out with the minister, or the deputy minister of privatization, in one of these -stans, and he said to me, "We're so happy!" I said, "What's going on?" He said, "We're ranked as one of the 20 poorest countries in the world." And I said, "So what's so great about that?" and he said, "Now there's going to be all these funds from NGOs that we can steal--it's going to be wonderful!"

And then I was in Azerbaijan once, and the country's corruption index had been tied with Nigeria, 60 percent of the economy was off the books, and people seemed fairly OK with that.

Tell us about some of the places that you visited that you drew on to create some of the scenes in this book.

Well, I think Azerbaijan is one of my favorites, it's just so hilarious. The former dictator Geidar Aliev, before he died, he was an old Communist Party boss too, there's all these scenes of him giving these immense diamonds to Brezhnev; he was really corrupt, he was always corrupt, so right before he died he decided as a kind of birthday present or something, he'd give the whole country to his son, who looks a little bit like a Middle Eastern Porky Pig. He's adorable, he's so cute. And he's incredibly corrupt. The country's authoritarian, it's kind of a kleptocracy, but he was just visiting George Bush, who loves him, you know, and in fact Dick Cheney, a couple of weeks ago, was in Kazakhstan, another one of these completely authoritarian countries, he said to the president, Nazarbayev, "I really admire your form of government and your economy here!" You know, "Way to go, Brownie! Heckuva job, Brownie!" It was really incredible, because, I think that Cheney would love to have this kind of system for our own government, where there's no opposition, everything is controlled by a couple of oil companies. ... So ... it was just so absurd. I've been to Azerbaijan a few times, and even the people you meet, I made some friends, and this one guy kept saying, "I really want to kidnap you--this is my dream. Please let me kidnap you." Every morning, "I really want to kidnap you." We're driving through a warehouse district, really abandoned, and he said, "Hmmm, now here's a really good place to kidnap you. We'll send Random House, your publisher, a ransom note, and I said, "I don't think they're going to bite. I don't know how my sales are doing."

So everywhere I went, and I think there's something about me, I speak Russian fluently, and nobody knows who I am. Once in Baku, for example, the police almost threw me on the ground, and they thought I was an Iranian terrorist, I had a big mullah-style beard at the time, I may have been chanting "God is great," I don't know.

So everywhere I go people either want to kill me or kidnap me or they want me to be involved in some bizarre scheme. For instance, once somebody in one of these countries, I shouldn't mention which, wanted me to help them steal $600 million from a California charity and they had this whole scheme involving pharmaceuticals, blue jeans, offshore accounts in Cypress, Moscow night clubs ... it was so complicated that the diagram, I tried to draw a diagram for the book, it made no sense whatsoever.


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