I’ve recently finished reading a book set in Saint Petersburg. I find I’m deliberately seeking out contemporary writing in this setting, partly as vicarious way to be back there.
I won’t name the novel, but it left me disappointed. More than disappointed, I felt dismayed. What bothered me so much was that the concept of Russia had been treated with a kind of fetishization that diminished its narrative to include vistas of onion-domed churches, rows of matryoshka (mistakenly called babyshka) dolls, and all the other stereotypes associated with a country that historically seems devoted to keeping itself a mystery (this too, a cliché). I understand that all writers are liable to forming associations with places based on popular references, and even Australia is not immune to this kind of minimisation (apparently this is a country made only of coastline, populated solely by tanned, blonde surfers). While this imagery may have a place in the identity of a country, it is little more than kitsch, complicit in simplifying a place into a convenient package.
Last week I spoke to a well-travelled friend about the concept of having ‘done’ a country – in the old style of travellers ticking countries off as though they were little more than items on a shopping list. As though an entire place and its people could be condensed into a compact jaunt. Thailand – done, India – done. And some forms of writing about place seem to follow the same mould.
At a macro level, the vision of a city can be evoked using few words, and sometimes nothing more is needed. The canals of Venice – instantly there is a wealth of association conjured up. But to write at length about a location, to have it feature as strongly as character, requires more than staple imagery or well-intentioned use of Google Maps. What colour is the water in the river at different times of the day? Does it smell of metal or salt? These details do not have to end up in the finished novel, but the depth of such knowledge permeates a piece and makes it feel authentic in a way that generalised research can never replicate. But writers will always have to bridge the gap between their immediate knowledge and their imagination.
In Birch I wanted to write about the abandoned Saint Petersburg: the broken windows, the rust, the black smoke blooming from the stacks in the industrial outskirts. Sometimes in the distance there was a glimmer of a gold church dome, and it seemed to belong to another world. The little balconies of flats in Zvezdnaya, blooming with nasturtiums and herbs that old ladies sold outside metro stations, bundling them in paper sandwich bags. To me, this is the real Petersburg, the city I love and cherish, even if I am at risk of romanticising even these details. But that’s a whole other issue altogether.