‘A book should be the ice-breaker for the sea that lies frozen within us’.
In place of an author’s biography
Even as this line is picking up speed, I am still a long way off the respectable age of printed biographies, and yet I have already passed the stage of one-page CVs. Yet what kind of biography can be possessed by a person, an inquirer by nature and a lyric poet at heart, whose bread, water and air with time increasingly resemble a dangerous tightrope walk into the elusive mystery of words? They, these words, some of which are about the vicissitudes of my path, are scattered like shadows between the lines and in the cracks between letters, flickering in the nooks and crannies of the pages of actual and projected books. But they can hardly become a biography. For me, who cannot stand officialese or a bare listing of biographical details, it would be easier to write another history of the world than weave a single carpet from the yarn of my own life. So please don’t be angry – there will be no carpet. But perhaps some individual different coloured threads, plucked chaotically from the interweavings of fate.
1971, the year of my premature birth, is not noted for any discoveries or catastrophes, although it was the year in which Coco Chanel, Arne Jacobsen and Louis Armstrong died, and the Free Christiania and Disney’s Magic Kingdom were born. True enough, I make so bold as to suppose that my parents neither did not nor could not know about this, living as they did behind the Iron Curtain.
My happy childhood, my bitter-sweet motherland, my pride and my longing – then as now, it was the Soviet Union that was all of these things. A country, an empire and an era that are no longer and that will not return. A Babylon, a crossroads of the cultures. An Atlantis that was deliberately sunk. A broken mirror the shards of which are scattered around the world. One of these shards is me.
My parents (married only once, a friendship going back to classroom days, incorrigibly faithful to one other) are simple people in the literal senses. My father is a traveller, as the driver of a heavy transporter he has been halfway round the world, from Eastern Europe to the lands of the Far East, delivering humanitarian cargos to the world’s hot spots, wherever there are wars and catastrophes or people are left without help. My mother is a pharmacist, she has spent all her life in a white coat, with test tubes and a set of chemist’s scales in her hands.
The town of my childhood, under the sky, in the mountains, three thousand metres up, is a Russian-speaking island of a hundred thousand people in the centre of Central Asia, that bridge between the East and West and a cultural ark of hundreds of nationalities. All the inhabitants – friends and neighbours – are second-generation immigrants. For one part, war-time evacuees from Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States. For another, the descendents of committed individuals exiled or fleeing to the Asiatic hinterland during the Stalinist purges. For a third, the children of incorrigible romantics who arrived to take possession of the grain-rich lands.
My childhood home – the third and highest floor of a Soviet building, surmounted by a sun-baked Southern roof, beneath which conditions were close but by no means cramped: hall, kitchen, corridor and balconies spacious by Soviet standards, with the windows of the small children’s room, which I shared with my sister, facing towards the East, where the day is born. A glorious view from the window. The crown of the Pamirs, asleep amidst the ice and souring above earthly vanity, at whose feet the Silk Route wove its way. Above the peaks, nothing but the lonesome call of eternity. It is no wonder that my school-girl writing desk stood at the window, and hour after hour instead of solving equations I would gaze lovingly at that distant snowy scenery, all bathed in light.
But it was people, not horizons, that left the deepest impression. For example, my maternal great-grandmother was a small, strong woman who was unable to read or write but who had lived through two world wars and a civil war. Nowhere else have I ever encountered such a wondrous assortment of songs, fairytales and parables, such a face, illuminated and sanctified, marked by the raylike furrows of her wrinkles, such a wonder-working strength of character as hers.
My entire childhood and youth spent in unquestioning service to my muse, a daily tribute of playing the violin until my fingers had grown numb and I could no longer think clearly. The hard little lump of a corn on the middle finger of my right hand that formed from many hours of being pressed against the bow is there to this day. My teachers and my parents longed for me to become a musician – of whom there were already plenty in our family. And I would have joined their ranks, were it not for…
It was a hastily-written and naïve essay, shall we say. At school, at the age of about ten. Lidia Pavlovna Popova, who taught me Russian language and literature, led me within the precincts of the staffroom and admonished me long and seriously: ‘Now, my dear girl, you are one of mine, you can do without chemistry and physics because this … this, you hear … is what belongs to you.’ It was impossible to stand against the authority of a Soviet teacher. And I didn’t really want to.
I remember staying awake long into the night, seated at the table by the window, but do not remember what I wrote. And my mother calling from the bedroom: ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning! Get to bed quickly! You’ve got school tomorrow!’
From the age of thirteen the city newspaper, where I was brought by my grandmother, who was a proof-reader. She said with a sigh: what’s to be done with her, see if you can talk her out of it… This was 1985, Gorbachev, perestroika… a critical voice, not universally popular, was putting out roots at that time. And straightaway, while still at school – it’s funny to recall, even – a provincial and city-bound fame which I left, without any regrets, at the age of seventeen, bound for the world of independence, the capital, to grow into a person and to learn from life.
And at the age of twenty the world collapsed: the Soviet Union came to an end. The red-leather passports of empire gave way automatically to ones in immature green, and without anyone having asked us we were informed that our country was no longer the Soviet Union but post-Soviet Uzbekistan. A different country. So our native land was cropped, linguistically, geographically, leaving only two percent of its territory and a scarcely breathing cultural shadow.
1993 brought a university degree and marriage to a person who, I can assure you, is cut from a superior cloth. In all situations, I might say, my husband has been my prime mover, my motivator, my mainstay and my mooring place. Together we are bringing up our son and our daughter.
All of the nineties were a Klondike of journalistic work, an aqualung-assisted descent into the depths, the depths of dictatorship, a marathon through the provinces, a constant dash between kishlaks lying forsaken in the mountains beyond the reach of the censored press. From the hospitals where dehkan women who had immolated themselves lay dying to the cotton fields where children’s childhood is exploited, to the prisons in the hungry steppe – an archipelago of torture – and the now-deceased islands, now turned to savannas of sand, where a secret bacteriological weapon was tested on people. In other words, constant sallies under the nose of tyranny. Looking the octopus in the eye. This work, these investigations, which appeared in Denmark, the USA and Germany (one of which, on state censorship, formed part of the submission to an official hearing before the US Congress), these ‘good old scribblings’, in the words of Brodsky, earned me a ‘kind of success’ – earned me exile. Exile is my current status, as indicated by my UN passport. This price my family has paid with me.
Since 2002 I – all of us – have been citizens of the world. A disagreeable experience. A difficult mooring. Astringent in its exoticness. Before that – many years of walking along the razor’s edge, no-nonsense interrogations by the renamed KGB, when they leave you so broken you don’t know if you will ever return home, when you experience pain, anxiety, sleeplessness, outrage, fear, when the adrenalin bubbles inside you, when you battle for your dignity, for the right to remain yourself, for survival, first of all in your own country, then beyond its borders: a chasm must be jumped in one leap, not two. I have told this story in The Darkest Hour is Before the Dawn (entitled Sandholm Diary in Danish), a work of documentary prose with which I made my debut with Gyldendal, the largest Scandinavian publishing house, in 2006, and which became one of the most widely discussed books of the year. Sandholm Diary, as indeed Sandholm itself, where I found myself at the start of my exile, where my life was split into the ‘before’ and ‘after’, where my soul was filled to such a depth that it was cleansed of all tares, were my springboard into literature. Exile is a condition of creativity. The seventh source of originality. The time to go solo. When you’re dug up by the roots all you can do is take to the air...
The exile into which I was carried by the trade winds of destiny at first appeared to me as a metaphysical death, and hence a rupture-point, of language and roots, a departure from oneself, and so from life: what good can there be in this? But then I understood that I was not departing but returning to myself. Just that: I was returning, to myself. Exile liberated me from my shackles. My life was pruned of all superfluous things. I grew closer to life’s root. I became myself. And isn’t that the main purpose of life – to be yourself?
My change of country and sinking into an isolation scarcely comparable with internal exile gave rise to a change of genre and creative temperament. I moved from a mobile, all-knowing but laconic journalism to a solitary, long-distance form of writing, from investigating social problems to exploring human cosmoses. With the years, and maybe with experience, there came the understanding that ‘events are only the froth of things’, and that a person’s inner world is even richer than the world outside. This world that is covered in secret and so is discovered by no-one I intend to make my focus in the future too. Following Kafka I consider that ‘a book should be the ice-breaker for the sea that lies frozen within us’.
In Denmark where I live I am known as a Russian, Danish and Uzbek writer. Each of these is a mistake. Each of them is the truth.
My ancestors are Bulgars, Turkic nomads from Volga Bulgaria. I know for certain that amongst my ancestors were some who rode to war and some who ploughed their fields in times of peace. From them, those horsemen of the Great Steppe and proud descendents of the Scythians, I inherited a taste for the free winds and an inability to melt into the crowd. But if I can trace this line back to 1775, the geography of my genes (modern science makes this possible too) can be followed all the way back to Adam and Eve who, as is well known, left Africa around two hundred thousand years ago, crossing the Near East and settling in Europe. In spite of this awareness of cultural roots my only ethnicity is Cosmopolitan; my citizenship and my artistic studio is the whole world; the religion I that confess and to which, God grant, I shall never be untrue, is humanism.
Incidentally, seen through these spectacles the literature of exile does not appear to be a retreat from the world. Literature is closer to the world than the world itself and more deeply embedded in the world than the world itself when it is not bound by the shackles of nation. It is an arrival in a different realm – beyond ethnicities, states and borders. It is like a bird, for whom all of the sky is its own.
Danish journalists ask me a question: why don’t I write in the language of the country where I live? To which I always reply thank you, thank you very much for your trust, but not everything is reckoned in terms of your country of residence.
There is no greater honour for a writer than to be accepted by the city where the spirit of the great Andersen’s fairytales dwells and winks at you from the roofs, the belfries, the spires and the stones. There is no greater honour for a writer who is read in the language of these places than to be able to express oneself in the language of these places. But it is only in the treasure house of the Russian language that I feel truly at home. And it’s not so much about abilities as about the desire for the authentic.
A writer is of course an itinerant, but an itinerant with only one language. Writing means laying bricks of words on a paper foundation, just like translating streams of consciousness, clothing in the bodily form of letters that which grows forth from the bright chamber of the soul. This art may be grasped by anyone who is able to gaze not into the distance but into the depths. First and foremost, the depths within yourself. Into yourself and your silence. It is there, inside the labyrinths of genetic memory, within the recesses of your inner soul, that you sense deep inside your core the flickering of your voice that leaves its mark on the paper. This voice puts forth shoots even before we are taught to write. It feeds on everything that tunes the strings of our soul. But it issues forth onto the shores of consciousness in the language in which your consciousness lives. It both issues forth and takes charge of you, sprinkling the paper that has yet to turn into history and that has yet to grasp the mystery of words that are not the search, but the eruption of what has been found, and that are a catharsis.
If it is true that a book is an instrument for the understanding of consciousness… If it is true that a book is an instrument for the nurture of our souls… If it is true that a book is an instrument for the improvement of this world … the improvement by us ourselves, for the world is already created… Then the shorter the distance from the soul to the pen that has written it, the greater the chance that the book may follow its mission.
Translated from the Russian by Mark Shuttleworth
Foto: Dina Sandholdt