Russian Painter Turns to Fiction To Create Panorama of Homeland

By Nora FitzGerald
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 17, 2007

MOSCOW -- Maxim Kantor is a big man who thinks big thoughts. For almost 30 years, his apocalyptic paintings, grim despite their primary colors, have depicted Russia as a yawning void, devouring its citizens. Discovered as an underground artist during the period of openness in the 1980s known as glasnost, Kantor experienced quick and heady success in Western Europe.

Recently, the dark visionary has become a sensation in his home country -- though not for his painting. Kantor, 49, is the author of a huge, controversial novel spanning Russia's past 20 years. A surprise finalist for Russia's Big Book prize this winter, the 1,400-page tome certainly fit the bill.

"The Drawing Textbook" roused the literary community here, which is still quarreling in reviews, blogs and discussions about whether this is the next great Russian novel or a long-winded publicity stunt.

"I didn't think in terms of success, but I was sure I was writing something great," Kantor said in his studio, where the smells of paint and cigarette smoke mingled. "Success I didn't expect. I thought, 'No one will buy it. It is too thick.' But the main point was to describe our time as part of a big history -- not an episode. To realize that the crime, the politics, the adventure, these stories are part of history."

The multilayered chronicle begins in the era of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, then goes on to create an epic picture of Russia through the eyes of one artist and his friends and family. The book pans out to places such as London and Paris and brings in a multitude of lesser characters -- self-serving intellectuals, slimy art dealers, dark-hearted oligarchs and politicians, many of them recognizable -- all to help tell the story of Russia falling apart.

Kantor saves his most savage criticism and most bitter disappointment for the West, as both a reality and an ideal. Leaders such as President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are pilloried.

The book landed like the brick it is on the desks of Moscow's literary elite. It sold 1,000 copies the day it was released last April. Its first run of 5,000 copies sold out in five weeks, and the book has since sold at least another 5,000 -- very respectable numbers in Russia. It is now being translated for publication in several other countries, including the United States.

"If you want to understand modern Russia, and especially if you want to understand Russia's view of the West, you must read it," Grigory Revzin, cultural critic for the newspaper Kommersant, said in an interview.

In an opinion piece, Revzin compared "The Drawing Textbook" to Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita." He proclaimed the great Russian novel alive and well because of Kantor.

"I received some heat for that," Revzin said. "You know, in the middle of the '90s I was very enthusiastic" about Russia. "Now I feel something is terribly wrong. I couldn't see the big picture, and in the life of this novel I have found it."

Kantor's book has struck the same chord with a small but growing audience. Observers say the panoramic, sprawling novel is one of the first attempts to capture post-perestroika Russia in fiction.

"It's a very profound and urgent contribution to understanding the nature of not just Russia, but the whole issue of the relationship between the West and Russia and how they think the West betrayed them," said David Godwin, Kantor's literary agent in London. "I am immensely committed to this book. I think it can play a role in world literature. Maxim's belief has been vindicated."

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