The novelist talks Moscow, Jewish identity, and why everybody should read The Master and Margarita.
Introducing Paul Goldberg at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, recently during the launch of Goldberg’s latest novel, The Dissident, moderator Andrew Weiss described the book as being “like a Coen Brothers directing of a Bond film.” He was serious.
How else to describe a story that follows a ragtag bunch of Jewish refuseniks in mid-1970s Moscow trying to solve the murder of one of their own with the clock ticking? Henry Kissinger is about to arrive, and the group’s de-facto leader (who discovered the homicide) must find the killer or risk becoming a suspect himself. Goldberg’s inventive caper skewers everyone in it, from the KGB to the protagonists to the authors of a book called The Laws of Jewish Life. It’s also a love letter to the country of Goldberg’s birth.
At turns heart-pounding and hilarious, Goldberg, whose previous novels include The Yid and The Chateau, is the type of writer who lets you know a character isn’t just wearing a sweater but a Dales of Norway sweater. Scarves, typewriters, and even slang in The Dissident are given serious scholarly treatment (there are copious footnotes, primarily in Cyrillic), while life’s big questions — what is memory? What is free will? How do I break into the Moscow Planetarium? — give the novel its emotional heft and bittersweetness.
Your book contains a Tolstoy-esque cast of characters. Which character did you enjoy writing the most?
I had the most fun with Norm Dymshitz, a Polish-born war hero who is suffering through a normal life in Pittsburgh. He is entirely my invention, although his character is inspired by old friends — now all gone. Norm spent a part of the war in a Nazi prison camp, then broke out and fought in the partisan detachments in the forests of Belarus. Norm is not an intellectual. He is an American businessman who is proud of the tattoo he received in a prison camp. He is in his mid-50s when he visits Moscow in the winter of 1976. He has a multitude of contradictory agendas: He is visiting his son, a U.S. reporter; he is bringing (clandestinely) a suitcase filled with money; he is eager to knock on the door of a friend who — to his amazement — survived the war. Through Norm, I can present Moscow of 1976 and wrestle with questions of Jewish identity as it develops through time — on both sides of the Atlantic.
There’s a quote early on where your protagonist, who wants to leave Moscow for Israel, is asked, “Viktor Venyaminovich, if you love this place, why do you yearn to leave?” It’s one of the themes of your book for reasons both internal and external. What was your reason for leaving Russia?
Viktor Venyaminovich answers this question with a question: “Because it’s a tragedy?” I was 14 when we left [Russia] in 1973, so I didn’t make the decision to leave. My parents did. But I was eager to get out. I felt mismatched with my country. After the [Soviet] invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, I rooted for the Czechs, Americans, Canadians, and Israelis in athletic competitions. I knew I would not be admitted to the schools I wanted to attend and, even if admitted, I would be ill-suited to make appearances of believing the ideological nonsense I would have to espouse. Had we stayed, chances are I would have ended up in prison under one of the articles of the RSFSR Criminal Code I describe in The Dissident.
My family ties to Moscow are very real, and the Moscow intelligentsia — whether in Moscow, Washington, New York, or Tel Aviv — are my people. Emigration has a cost. If you are honest about it, it’s always a tragedy.
I feel like I could now go to Moscow and get around just by following along in the book (even if there wasn’t that helpful map up front). Did writing it make you homesick?
I love that map! And I hope that after this horrible chapter in Russian history is over, people will use that map for a tour of Moscow. This is my tour of my city. I can tell you which fence to scale and what happens when you get to the other side. I wrote the Moscow geography by memory, and after much of the book was written, I went back and jotted down the addresses — the exact buildings where events take place.
The Master and Margarita is its own character here. What is the significance of that novel as it relates to your story? Is it required reading before someone cracks open The Dissident?
Whatever you do, don’t read The Master and Margarita before reading The Dissident. Do it the other way around. The Dissident is set in 1976, a decade after a truncated version of The Master and Margarita first appeared in print. (Mikhail Bulgakov, its author, died in 1940, and the novel was hidden from the secret police.) I was certain that my characters — the Moscow intelligentsia — would be still figuring out this complicated story. The Master and Margarita is widely read — and profoundly misunderstood both in Russia and outside. I wanted my characters to provide insight into The Master and Margarita as the novel relates to them in 1976 and to all of us today. The book is phenomenally popular because of the “Satan in Moscow” chapters, which are hilarious and insightful. That was why I kept returning to this novel. The love story was never my favorite part, and the [Pontius] Pilate chapters always escaped me. I skipped them over on re-readings. To write The Dissident, I needed to understand the Pilate chapters. I wanted my characters to understand them in the context of sacrifice they were prepared to make.
What role do footnotes play in your book?
There are ways in which we communicate in Russian that are lost in translation. A translator can usually convey the meaning; conveying the feeling is a bigger challenge. Language is about our sense of who we are as a culture, how we address people like us, and how we regard outsiders. A strange thing was happening to me as I was writing conversations between Russian characters. To try to convey the feeling of language, I wrote in Russian, then set it down on paper in English.
I did this in order to preserve the juiciness of speech, but as I did this, I envisioned the Russian translation of the English text I was writing. Much of the juiciness of speech would likely be lost. So, I decided to preserve the Russian text, very selectively, in footnotes.
Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.