Paul Goldberg’s latest novel, The Dissident, takes us to Moscow in 1976, on the wedding day of a couple named Viktor and Oksana. Sent on one last errand before the ceremony, Viktor stumbles upon the double murder of an American diplomat and his gay lover. To make matters worse, he’s then nabbed by the KGB and charged with solving the crime — before Henry Kissinger arrives in town nine days later.
Goldberg has published two nonfiction books on the subject of Soviet Jews in the 70s, and he dives back into that material with dizzying narrative energy, adding a love story, a murder mystery, a full cast of good guys and bad guys, and nonstop wordplay and jokes. I don’t think I can say it any better than this comment from Michael David Lukas on the back cover: “An incandescent conjuring of Moscow in the 1970s full of dark humor, vodka, smoked fish, and choices no one should be forced to make.”
I met Paul Goldberg through his wife, the author Susan Coll, who in addition to writing comic novels works with events at Washington’s beloved Politics and Prose bookstore. In fact, Goldberg and Coll are mainstays of a writing community in D.C. similar to what we have with the so-called Baltimore Writers Club here. I was lucky enough to attend the launch party for The Dissident at their home, which featured three kinds of piroshki, platters of smoked fish and brown bread, and potato salad and eggplant caviar made in Olympian quantities by the author himself. The beverage of choice was, of course, vodka.
I was challenged and invigorated by my reading of The Dissident, and I had a lot of questions for Paul. He answered them generously in the discussion below.
Your book is set in Moscow in 1976, among Soviet dissidents — a milieu you have explored in two previous nonfiction books. Why return to it in fiction?
You are asking, why write historical fiction? Historical fiction allows one to dig deeper, to show how people lived. There are episodes in history that we picture largely based on historical fiction. I can’t imagine Luis XIV without Alexandre Dumas or the French Revolution without Victor Hugo.
The Dissident is based on very real historical materials I unearthed while writing my first book, a history of the Moscow Helsinki Group. That book, The Final Act, was published by Morrow in 1988. In the process of writing it, I conducted interviews with members of that group—dissidents. Pretty much all of them are gone now.
That book didn’t seem to have been noticed in the US, but it has been translated into Russian—I got to edit the translation—and it’s very much alive there.
The Final Act, my first book, is an immensely complicated story that I always thought needed more exploration. Hence, The Dissident, a book that I hope is not my last.
These books, these efforts to understand the exact same story, are exactly 35 years apart.
Also, The Dissident is a love letter to Moscow, my city where I cannot live.
There’s a great deal of Russian in the book — often in footnotes showing what the dialogue “really” would be, if it had been transcribed in the characters’ native tongue. This makes me wonder both about your process and your ideal audience. Are you translating in your head? And thinking about how you can’t say the exact same thing in two different languages? And what about the readers?
Thank you for noticing this. I use some transliteration, and I use some Russian. But everything is translated.
I relied on an odd process. Yes, in many scenes I had my characters to speak Russian—they did so in my skull. Then I took down whatever they said and restated it in English. Some things translated well; some didn’t. The parts that didn’t translate are especially interesting, I think.
What are the boundaries of the translator’s art? When you run into these untranslatable moments, you stumble into something profound about differences in language, culture, history. Obscenity—which is a big part of the novel—falls wholly into that category. Poetry does, too, most of the time.
Sorry to be speaking vacuously. Here is something more solid: when you translate a juicy line from Russian into English and then ask another translator to translate it back into Russian, chances are, you will get something different from the original Russian line. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, sometimes it does.
So, in situations where it does matter, I use footnotes to show what was “actually” said, the words I imagined them use in Russian.. A Russian reader would enjoy that. I am told that you can use the footnotes in The Dissident as a basis for a crash course in Russian obscenities. It’s not just obscenities—it’s all color.
The point is, it’s a fool’s errand to separate the language from the story.
My sister was just talking to me about reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and turns she didn’t know of the title’s connection to Dostoevsky. She said, “I guess a lot of this book is going over my head, but I’m enjoying it anyway.” I have to say I felt that about The Dissident. As one of your blurbs puts it, “In one way, it’s a highfalutin and wild ride, but the simplicity and harmony of a good novel is never lost.” Is that something you were aware of/actively worked to balance?
I think so—or at least I hope so. It’s possible to shape complicated story into a simple story. Characters clashing is the simplest thing in the world.
The novel is a big clash of cultures and interests. The Jewish dissidents vs. non-Jewish dissidents; Orthodox Jews vs. secular would-be emigres; all dissenters vs. the KGB; dissidents vs. the foreign press; the KGB vs. CIA vs. Mossad; Judaism vs. Christianity vs. Communism; Soviet Jews vs. American Jews; Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford.
You can keep going, but these are the highlights.
A clash is a clash—it’s simple. You just have to let it resound. Where is it written that every reader must understand everything in every book? Understanding is overrated, certainly full understanding is.
I had control over all this material because I had explored all this when I was reporting The Final Act decades ago. I hashed all of this out—surprising myself by the detail I was running into on every turn. A good story is rarely what you thought it was.
Plus, I know Moscow. I grew up there. My parents and I left in 1973, when I was 14. I understand this story as a person of Russian culture, as a journalist, as a historian, and as a novelist. I don’t want this to sound immodest, but in my imagination, I am able to walk through Moscow of that period, look in on old friends, make new friends, hold my own at vodka-soaked evenings, and—importantly—make new enemies.
I am hoping that a Russian reader would see that I am being faithful to our shared history while a reader who hasn’t experienced all that, would get a whiff of authenticity and have fun following this wild story.
Is the sculpture of a legless veteran you describe, “Uncle Grisha,” inspired by a real work of art?
It’s real. Thanks for noticing this. Uncle Grisha, the sculpture in the novel, is World War II invalid whose legs had been blown off and who moves around using a piece of plywood mounted on small, rattling wheels.
The sculptor in The Dissident is inspired by a very real sculptor, Vadim Sidur, a war veteran who was famous for sculpting amputees and creating an artistic style called “coffin art.” Sidur, too, fought in the war and, like my character, was wounded in Stalingrad.
Some say Sidur stands shoulder to shoulder with Henry Moore. I agree. Another thing about Sidur: in the 1970s, he was keeping a diary, which was published as a book, which most normal people would find unreadable. I found inspirational as I was writing The Dissident.
There is a Sidur museum in Moscow, by the way. It’s great.
Many books play a role in The Dissident, from Catcher in the Rye to The Master and Margarita. The latter, as you say in the Acknowledgments, is practically a character in the book. Why is this so important to the story?
Thank you for this question as well. The Catcher gets a quick mention, because my characters would have been familiar with it. I have a line in The Dissident that goes something like this: Americans have their drugs. We have out literature. And their literature. Don’t put quotation marks around it. I am going by memory.
The Master and Margarita, a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, is hugely important in the context of The Dissident. It’s a Faust-like story, set in Moscow in the 1930s. It was first published in 1966—so 10 years before events I describe in The Dissident. It would be fresh—a decade is not a long time to figure out something like Faust or The Master and Margarita.
In the 1970, a new word emerged in the intelligentsia circles—Bulgakoved—a Bulgakov scholar, usually a public intellectual. One of the characters in my novel is a Bulgakoved. The novel is of direct importance in The Dissident, because my characters are being sucked into a deal with the KGB.
So, Faust and The Master and Margarita are about deals with Satan. In The Dissident, the characters are being sucked into a deal with the KGB.
I need a half-a-liter of vodka to get deeper into The Master and Margarita. It’s a novel I love, but I’ve struggled with it for decades. Writing The Dissident forced me to dig deep into it in a way I never had before.
And Henry Kissinger actually is a character in the book. He is portrayed in both brilliantly positive and deeply negative lights. What are your real feelings about him?
I express my feelings through the protagonist in The Dissident.
The protagonist, Viktor Moroz, is a failed engineer who tries to emigrate to Israel, but becomes a refusenik. He wants to admire Kissinger, who at the time serves as the US Secretary of State. Here, after all, is a German Jewish refugee who becomes America’s top diplomat. Surely, given that, there can’t possibly be any anti-Semitism in America, etc.
Kissinger’s visit to Moscow in January 1976 is a crucial moment in The Dissident. I don’t want to introduce any spoilers.
Recently, someone unearthed an audio tape in which Kissinger tells then President Nixon that even if the Soviets were deporting their Jews to concentration camps, that would not be a concern for U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps a humanitarian concern—but not a foreign policy concern.
Let’s just say that idealizing Henry A. Kissinger can be hazardous to one’s life and liberty.
The book “starts over” several times on the day of/before/immediately after the wedding.
I was surprised on page 246 when Viktor is asked by the KGB to solve the mystery of the double axe murder that he ran into on his wedding day. I felt like — what, this is a detective novel now? The book has a complicated timeline. How did that evolve?
The novel does begin with a Jewish wedding. And it is a love story. And the milieu is very real—I couldn’t have made it up and, mercifully, didn’t have to try.
On the day of the wedding, the groom, that would be Viktor, stumbles into a horrific murder scene. Two gay men—a dissident and a U.S. diplomat—are axed to death at in a central Moscow apartment.
After the KGB discovers that Viktor had stumbled onto the murder scene, he is given a choice: figure out who did it or become the suspect of convenience. There is also a deadline: the case must be solved before Kissinger’s arrival in Moscow.
The time frame is compressed—about nine days. During that time, there are some cat-and-mouse games with the KGB and a lot of pondering of dealmaking with Satan. The scene you refer to occurs at a point where Viktor’s KGB curator, who by the way is Jewish, tells him that she has had enough—no more gameplaying.
The story is all the more complicated because the KGB is Victor’s suspect No. 1. But what if the KGB didn’t do it? Who did? Besides, Viktor is a failed engineer. What does he know about solving murders?
Finally, since this is the Baltimore Fishbowl, I’m wondering how you feel about our city.
I go to Baltimore as often as I can. It’s a “real” city, with an industrial cityscape and a crazy quilt of cultures and foods. Some of my favorite antique finds were in Baltimore. Once, in a marine salvage place called China Sea Trading Co. (the place has moved to Maine and the owners are still my friends), a bought an engine order telegraph salvaged from a 1930s Russian ship. It’s a massive thing that can be set to “Full Steam Ahead,” etc. Also, I found a massive sign that came from a DP camp. It reads “our doctor is available at all times” in English, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish. It’s a treasure, and it’s the backdrop to the author photo above.