A year ago I was privileged to press palms with Arslan Khasavov, the Debut Prize winning (twice) Russian novelist and Chairman of the Jury of this year’s Student Booker prize whose essay collection “Reconquer the Space” is due to be translated into English. Then I knew him as the author of “Sense”, an intimate confessional whose narrator is trying to find himself in the Moscow of the noughties.
I was eager to know if, six years on, he remained the ‘angry young man’ who had authored that book. He obliged by leading me on a guided tour of the parts of Moscow where the book is set.
“I want to record my own experiences, and speak for my own generation”, says Arslan Khasavov. At 27 he is too young to be able to remember Gorbachev: he represents the first post-Soviet generation, and they are beginning to find their voice. (These I call ‘Generation Q’: the demographic group which follows Victor Pelevin’s ‘Generation P’).
He has just returned from a week-long Forum for Young Writers in Zvenigorod, an event which had been organised by Sergei Filatov, who had served in the Yeltsin administration. With him is another delegate from the conference, an elegant woman called Olga who is working on a PhD thesis on young authors, including Khasavov. They are ‘just friends’ and she faces a journey back to America to resume her studies the next day. Nevertheless they find the time to do a tour of the haunts of Artur Kara, the anti-hero of his first novel “Sense”. All of these are within a two mile radius of the Tverskaya area.
First it is up a winding staircase and into the backstreet bookshop where Kara would linger and dream of future greatness…
Arslan Khasavov, a Kumyk by birth, looks at first like any guy you might see on the Metro: tall and chunky, but with a kindly face. His manner is earnest yet relaxed. Only his multicoloured scarf hints at the creator of the tortured romantic Artur Kara. Six years have passed since his vivid and conversational serio-comic novel introduced us to that alter ego. Something of a primal scream, this was scribbled out one feverish summer when he was ostensibly studying at the Institute of Asian and African Studies in Moscow. He held no hope of it ever seeing publication.
“I was very angry at the lack of social mobility in Russia”, he says. “There were a lot of youth political movements at that time. Even so, it was hard to find a platform for one’s own concerns”.
“Sense” sketches the meetings and marches of such organisations of the (now banned) National Bolsheviks, the Hurrah! Movement and – here it becomes very edgy – the Islamic Committee. Kara could not find a place for himself in any of these, and neither could Khasavov. This part of the novel is reportage: he was involved to the point of being placed under administrative arrest for weeks at a time.
Next it is to the school where Kara would gaze at a longed for girl playing football in the sports field…
Realising that an autobiographical approach to this question would not work, Khasavov took his cue from John Fante, the Coloradoan scribe, and conjured forth Artur Kara, the club-footed would-be genius from a working class family.
The result might remind British readers of Keith Waterhouse’s “Billy Liar” or Americans of Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”. Khasavov, however, name-checks the colourful controversialist Eduard Limonov as a seminal influence. (Limonov would later repay the favour by characterising the novel as being “in the best traditions of Tolstoy and Turgenev”).
He then mailed the document to the Debut Prize judges, merely with the hope of getting some critical suggestions. Instead, the judges, sniffing its immediacy fished it out of the slush pile of around 50,000 manuscripts and shortlisted it.
Then the fairytale ending appeared in the form of Arch Tait, the respected translator and UK editor for the Glas New Writing Series. In his sixties, Tait recognised both the sincerity and satire in the work and prepared it for publication in 2012.
“His translation is an improvement on the Russian original”, says Khasavov with sudden modesty.
Now it is to the block of flats, where Khasavov points out the one time dwelling place of the doomed Turkmenistani radical, Boris Shikhmuradov, who had inspired Kara…
Despite insisting that “in Russia literature and politics cannot be separated”, Khasavov refuses to nail his colours to any particular mast. He professes broad support for Other Russia but then, in the same breath, admits to some regard for the Liberal Democrats on account of the silliness they bring to the Duma. Humour is important to Khasavov: one of Kara’s proposals is that old heating stations be replaced by new ones heated by human sewage:
Also that people should be required to go naked in public places and government institutions:
People should feel free to ‘demand the impossible’, Khasavov seems to be saying.
“Where is there any sense of political engagement now?” he asks. “We are living in a post-ideological age”.
– So is “Sense” a period piece then?
– I don’t think so. The writers I most relate to – like Sergey Shargunov – may have taken to writing historical metaphors and that sort of thing, but I still feel there’s a place for realistic contemporary fiction.
Finally, it is to the dimly lit basement bar where Kara announces ‘the freedom of every individual to choose for himself a worthy end’ and unveils madcap scheme for the armed invasion of Turkmenistan…
Khasavov still lives with his parents and married sister in Horoshovo-Mnevniki in North-West Moscow. “Sense”, however, has allowed him to gatecrash the life of a writer.
As a journalist he went to Syria in 2012. In May 2014 he visited Chechnya and even met up with with Ramzan Kadurov, the President of the Chechen Republic: a man he much admires. Meanwhile a compendium of his essays and stories “Reconquer the Space” has been shortlisted for the Debut Prize. Earlier, in 2008, Khasavov was longlisted for the Debut Prize with the “Sense” novel.
“Of course I’m a bit different than I was six years ago”, he says. “But I’m glad I wrote ‘Sense’.”
“In fact”, he adds with a wink. “I think Artur Kara wants to come back.”