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Marcel Theroux on Siberia, disaster and the bafflement of technology

November 17, 2009 |  8:51 am

In Marcel Theroux's National Book Award-nominated novel "Far North," Makepeace has survived in a remote Siberian town, essentially alone, until coming across a desperate adolescent raiding an empty house. This disturbance changes Makepeace's path, so that staying alive means searching out what bits of civilization might remain in a shattered world. It's the fourth novel for Theroux, who has traveled to Russia and the Ukraine, and the first since he worked on a documentary for the BBC about climate change.

Jacket Copy: Right now we're surrounded by post-apocalypse fictions: The movie "2012" just topped the weekend box office, the movie version of "The Road" is coming out, there's your book and Margaret Atwood's. What do you think the appeal is of setting stories after an apocalypse?

Marcel Theroux: I didn't embark on it to be a post-apocalyptic novel -- I can see why people say that about it – but I started with the character of Makepeace. I suppose to answer your question, I think one of the attractions is it gives you another angle on the way we live now. It's a way of writing about the present without seeming to write about the present. That's one of the things I liked about it. It makes you realize that things we take for granted are contingent and could change, and things haven't always been this way. In a very huge way, it situates the time we live in a much bigger historical perspective. In the case of post-apocalyptic books, it makes you think about the present from the point of view of disaster.

When I was writing "Far North," I was thinking a little bit about how the achievements of ancient Rome would have appeared to a Medieval peasant. For such a long time in Western history, the greatest technological and scientific achievements appeared to be behind us. It's only now that we feel like we're living at a cutting edge, and we feel that life is naturally linked to progress. But there's nothing natural about that, if you look at history.

JC: Makepeace is someone who is both savage and civilized, because she has a moral code.

MT: Yes, she's got a moral code. She's also got a possibly misplaced respect for her predecessors on the planet. She looks back at us and thinks we knew all sorts of things and were impressive and civilized and smart. I often think she got the wrong end of the stick about us. But there's something kind of noble about her desire to preserve what she sees as best about human beings.

JC: In some ways, that's made tangible in the books that she saves, which is how your book begins.

MT: She saves them, but she doesn't actually read them herself. She feels like she ought to, but it gives her a headache when she reads them. She feels kind of inadequate when she considers these treasures of her civilization, but she's the only person there.

JC: There are some mysterious elements that are beyond her.

MT: I think it's true of all of us that we're surrounded by things we take for granted but we don't actually understand. I'm looking around the [hotel] room, I see my mobile phone and my computer and a plasma-screen TV. I couldn't take one of these apart and put it together – I have a very primitive understanding of the way these things work. I think there is a huge gap between the technological sophistication of things around us and our actual understanding of them. I was interested in that gap.

Makepeace is a very resourceful person who is hugely capable. Like a lot of people in traditional societies, she can fix anything that goes wrong. She's mastered all the technology that she needs to master, albeit on a more basic level than mobile telephones. She feels an awe and inadequate when she's confronted by these things that we take for granted, like planes and cars and internal combustion engines.

It's somehow compelling when you have a narrator who's doing their best but somehow knows slightly less than the reader feels they do. I think it's good to feel superior to the narrator in a way – I think it's a good device. My knowledge about the world is greater than hers – there's a lot of things she's ignorant about, and she's aware of it. I was kind of interested in the idea that it's possible for knowledge to disappear.

JC: When she sees an airplane, it inspires her.

MT: It's pretty amazing, isn't it? An airplane is pretty amazing. Actually, traveling in an airplane is horrible, and it doesn't feel anything like amazing, but the idea of it. When was the first powered flight, 1906? [1903]. It is a miraculous thing. It's a device for letting the reader know – it's hard now, because the book's been reviewed, but I was thinking that at the beginning you could be in the American West in the 19th century. It's only the plane that makes you know for sure.

JC: Makepeace is such a loner. She spends much of the early part of her life alone, and she is often remote from the people around her. Was it hard to render the world around her? She's always the filter.

MT: I never felt like her landscape was that empty, because there was so much in it, she had so many things she needed to do. There were all kinds of sources of conflict for her, and she'd had a very rich and interesting past. I guess I'm quite interested in isolation, anyway. That never felt like one of the difficulties of writing the book.

It's a real place – the place where she is having her adventures in Siberia – I've visited maybe five or six times for other reasons before I wrote the book. So it was a place that felt very real to me. Things in it – quite surprising things – I've actually seen. I felt confident rendering her world.

JC: By things you've seen, do you mean the way people live in that environment?

MT: Partly that. Things in the far north – I've been into reindeer herders' huts in north Siberia. But even smaller things. I went to Chechnya in 2000, which then was in the grip of a terrible civil war. The place -- Grozny, the capital – had been bombed to hell, and it was very, very dangerous. There were Russian soldiers in checkpoints along the streets, and they would kind of hide in their little posts at night because it was even too dangerous for Russian soldiers to go around. There was a guy whitewashing the sidewalk outside his apartment, which was an insane bit of punctiliousness. The whole place was horrible. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was cleaning it. His name was Shamsudin. I kind of put him in the book, to commemorate him, that civilizing impulse. He was a guy who decided he needed the sidewalk to look nice outside of his largely ruined apartment building, which I thought was kind of amazing and improbable.

JC: You've been in some pretty rough places as a journalist.

MT: I've tried to avoid them, but I have occasionally. I suppose Chechnya was the hairiest place.

JC: What are the different responsibilities of the journalist and the novelist toward violence and brutality?

MT: In fiction, you're saying, "look at this horrible brutality," but at the same time, the author made it up. So the author's weirdly complicit in the brutality in a way that a journalist isn't. I'm sort of haunted by violence, I suppose everyone is. I find it – I'm sort of fascinated by it. I suppose one of the things I'm interested in is that human beings have composite brains that reflect different stages of evolution -- we have a lizard brain that is violent and impulsive and ugly, and we have successive layers of more sophisticated brain that have higher functioning, empathy, the capacity to love and care for each other. The ghastly truth about human beings is that all these things coexist in the same person. And the structures of civilization are a restraining influence on our capacity to do horrible things to one another. I suppose that's another reason why post-apocalyptic – I prefer calling it speculative – genre is interesting, because it allows you to explore what would happen when some of these civilizing influences are taken away, the same way that [William Golding] does in “Lord of the Flies.”

JC: How did you first come to go to places like Siberia and Chechnya?

MT: I studied Russian in school, from when I was 13. My Russian is pretty ropey, considering I'm supposed to be studying it for such a long time. I did various films and documentaries in the Soviet Union, and I used to visit myself, because I think it's an amazing place, fascinating. It has a history of such incredible extremes – the history of Russia in the 20th century is just mind-blowing. I worked on various documentaries and would end up going to Chernobyl and north Siberia and I was happy to go. I guess it comes from a childhood fascination with learning Russian, with the weird letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.

JC: Do you have any favorites in Russian literature?

MT: I'll tell you specifically. Because I didn't think of “Far North” as post-apocalyptic, exactly; to me, it had different progenitors. One of them was this book by two brothers, Boris and Arkade Strugatsky, “Roadside Picnic.” That was quite influential on me. It was the book that was the basis of the Andre Tarkovsky film “Stalker.” When I went to Chernobyl the guys there were very into “Stalker” and “Roadside Picnic,” and they talked about it a lot, because in “Roadside Picnic” there's a zone. The premise of “Roadside Picnic” is that aliens have visited Earth, have stopped and gone away. They didn't really find anything to detain them on our planet, but they left a lot of stuff behind in this zone. And the stuff has very weird properties, and the Stalkers travel around in the zone. You can see that clearly left an imprint on me.

JC: Yet it's also informed by real-world problems.

MT: One of the reasons I didn't think of it as post-apocalyptic was I'd been thinking a lot about climate change and global warming. I met this famous scientist James Lovelock – he has this notion that the world is an organism, which he calls Gaia. He understands it as a single organism, and the idea is that Gaia acts in her own best interest. So we, as humans, do things to Gaia – like put too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Gaia has to figure out a way of regulating her temperature. Much like if you or I had a virus, our bodies would figure out a way of getting it out of our system. Lovelock's idea is basically that human beings have become the virus on Gaia, and that global warming is one of the responses to us.

There's a lot of talk about climate change, and people focus on carbon emissions and using the SUV less. What was interesting to me about it was that the repercussions of climate change are very simple: They get very hungry, or they don't have enough water, and they start moving around to find it. And that could be profoundly destabilizing, particularly for weak states, to have masses of people on the move.

There are nomads in Kenya – there's been terrible droughts – that really bring home what climate change is. It's desperate people who don't have enough water. People who are desperately thirsty, or watching their children die, are desperate in every sense. It's a tragedy.

JC: Can fiction, or storytelling, elucidate some of these issues that are anchored in the real world?

MT: I don't know. I didn't set out to write a didactic book. I'm just interested in the world and constantly surprised by things in it. The climate change thing – it was a real shock to think, what this really means is hungry people. Hungry people are desperate people, and human beings being what they are – what wouldn't you do, if your children were hungry?

I suppose that's what a speculative novel does, is that it asks various what-ifs, with the guiding principle being that whatever you've changed in the experiment, human nature has got to be the same.

JC: At the same time, with these ideas in the back of your head, it must have been kind of fun to write about this survivalist woman.

MT: It was totally. I loved writing about it.

I felt when I was writing that she was so much better than me. One of the seeds of the book was that I was writing in a diary when I was stuck on something else, and I wrote, 'You've just got to buckle on your guns and go patrol the dingy city.' It just didn't sound like me, it sounded very resourceful and practical and uncomplaining, and I became curious about who that voice was. So many of her qualities are not like what I'm like.

I'm writing something else now, it's not a sequel, and I really miss Makepeace. I miss working on that book, because I really enjoyed it. It's work and tenacity, to stick with a book and finish it. But I did feel like I was lucky to meet Makepeace. I found her presence very uplifting, and I think she was good for me.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A village in Siberia. Credit: sashapo via Flickr.