Dont be Absurdistan: Jewish writer delights S.F. crowd

You’ve seen this one before. The ridiculously anti-Semitic journalist with the Russian accent insults his interview subject almost to the point of fisticuffs. And British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is prominently involved.

But this time it was Baron Cohen who was enraged by his inquisitor’s boorish anti-Semitism. And the journalistic ruffian? It was none other than Gary Shteyngart, a Soviet-born Jew and one of the hottest young authors in America.

“One magazine asked me to interview Sacha Baron Cohen, but I pretended I was a very anti-Semitic Russian journalist. He was so offended he wouldn’t answer my questions. I out-Borated Borat!” Shteyngart said over the laughter of a San Francisco crowd during a question and answer session and reading from his latest novel, “Absurdistan.”

The author’s family moved from Leningrad to New York in 1979 when he was 7, and his 2002 debut novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” won the national Jewish Book Award. But it was far from his first work of fiction.

“I started writing when I was very small,’ said Shteyngart, who is on the short side with a full, coal black beard and eyeglasses befitting a NASA technician from the Apollo era. “My grandmother, who was a journalist in Russia, commissioned a work from me. It was about Lenin. There was a big statue of Lenin right where we lived — in Leningrad — and it was a fairy tale about Lenin and a magical goose that invaded Finland and turned it into a socialist country.

“Grandma paid me with a little piece of cheese for every page I wrote. Horrible, Soviet cheese. To this day, I keep some Brie near the table when I write.”

Shteyngart kept the crowd laughing at a recent lunchtime appearance at downtown San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute Library. The several dozen attendees enjoyed Russian food and, of course, vodka. The author himself sipped from a vodka and grapefruit juice and noted that, with any luck, by the end of his reading he would sound “just like Boris Yeltsin.”

That didn’t happen, but the liquid refreshment was apropos for the passage from “Absurdistan” he read, which describes the obese young Russian Jew Misha Vainberg being packed off to America to be circumcised by a boisterous pack of vodka-swilling Chassids.

Shteyngart swooped into character, affecting Russian or New York Jewish accents as he read about “young fedora-wearing men hoisting plastic cups along with rye bread and pickles” and drinking wildly out of a bathtub full of vodka and bits of onion in an apartment that “smelled of buckwheat kasha and used underwear [and] proved to be homey and inviting.”

Once Vainberg is sufficiently plied with the bathtub vodka, he is rushed out of the apartment to a dingy Bronx hospital on “a Chassidic summer night where even the yellow face of the moon wore sidecurls and the crickets sang the songs of our ancestors.”

Shteyngart was inspired to write “Absurdistan” when, traveling through an oil-rich former Soviet republic that shall remain nameless, he was approached at the poolside bar by several prostitutes ululating “Halliburton? Halliburton?” (pronounced, with the Yiddish “ch,” as “Chally-burton”).

When he replied he was a Russian writer, not a contractor, the hooker spat and shouted, “I hate Russian writers!”

While the Shteyngarts fled Russia to avoid the persecution of Jews, young Gary ended up in a New York Hebrew school where Jews persecuted the Russians.

“It was 1979, 1980 and all the movies were ‘Red Dawn,’ ‘Red Gerbil,’ ‘Red Hamster.’ Being a Russian kid was even bad at Hebrew school. I had to pretend I was born in East Berlin,” he said.

He returns to his home country almost every year, but can’t stay longer than three weeks without getting really depressed.

“Being a Jew in New York is not that special; there are 2 million of us. But when I return to Russia, I am ‘The Jew.’ I might as well have a big nametag that says ‘Jew walking down the street.’ I was in St. Petersburg and there were two drunks lying in the gutter and one of them looked up and said ‘Look at that bearded Jew!'”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.