(Creative Armenia)— Viken Berberian, a writer and essayist, is the author of the novels The Cyclist (2002) and Das Kapital (2007). We sat down with him to chat about his newest work, together with French illustrator Yann Kebbi. Already published in France, The Structure is Rotten, Comrade has just been released in the United States.
Creative Armenia: We just got your new book The Structure is Rotten, Comrade and read it in one sitting. But we still don’t know exactly how to describe it! Is it an illustrated novel? A literary comic book? And how did you arrive at this unique format?
Viken Berberian: In college we’re taught about dividing fiction from non-fiction. We have books about art, philosophy, poetry, physics, comics, probability, computer programming, history. We’re taught to separate, specialize and categorize. I suppose we need to do that in a library or a bookstore to make it easier to find books, but I think these divisions are often binary. They’re stupid and arbitrary. Working with Yann Kebbi, the book’s illustrator, made me realize this more than ever. Our approach was informed more by finding connections and linkages, the coming together of our seemingly disparate disciplines.
We both don’t come from a comic book background. In fact, we wanted to break some of the classical canons of comics like the talk bubbles. I wrote the book in a literary and sardonic vein and it’s obviously not a novel. Yann says that it reads like a play. So I’m not sure how to describe it, but I do feel strongly that the pursuit of knowledge and the arts should be about connecting seemingly irreconcilable disciplines. Those works that cut across genres and literary tropes and traditions are more interesting and innovative to me. I often find myself falling in that trap of categorizing too and have to shake things up, and maybe that’s what this book is, to get out of the rut of specialization. That’s been the general taxonomy of knowledge in modern history. I think life would be more beautiful if we resisted that tendency, the coder’s binary paradigm of zeros and ones. And you can apply this to many things, including nationhood and culture. Mono is not good.
C.A.: There’s always the metaphorical level in your works. Tell us how architecture — both the architecture of the city Yerevan and the moral architecture of the society in which your protagonist Frunz finds himself — plays into the themes you’re pursuing in The Structure. And what’s rotten about it, anyway?
V.B.: The case for rotten is not a difficult one to make. The rot was a catalyst for the velvet revolution, but there is also the regenerative alongside the rotten. Life is palpably less rotten today in the sense that Armenians now live in a more open and accountable society than just a year ago. I’m convinced of that. But yes, the reference to the structure being rotten, and that phrase is taken from the May 1968 French student uprising, has a dual meaning, an architectural one and a moral one. Yann and I will leave it to the readers to discover them. But more than 43 historic buildings were demolished in Yerevan in the course of a few years to make room for high-rises and supermarkets. Many of them are pitiful eyesores. A city has two ways to expand, either horizontally or vertically. Yerevan decided to go higher in a seismic zone and that’s pretty rotten to me. Many developers made a lot of money because of it. It was done in a rushed way and, in most cases, without rigorous environmental impact reports. You paid the right bribe to the right person to attain a building permit. I was reminded of it again today with the death of I.M. Pei who designed the glass pyramids at the Louvre. He once said that our ancients had a lot of time to think about architecture and landscape but that today we rush everything. Architecture needs time, he said, but our political systems won’t allow for that, and that to me too is pretty rotten.
C.A.: Like Frunz, you’ve spent some of your life in France. And like Frunz, you chose to move to Armenia to live and create. We’re guessing there’s some idealism connected to that decision — and we know what can happen to idealism when it hits the hard reality of a post-soviet republic. We know how things end for Frunz, although we’ll let our readers find out about that. How’s it going for you?
V.B.: Well, you know this already, but Frunz is an invented character and I’m not, unless if you take a Cartesian view of life and everything is a dream. I’m not Cartesian in that way. That’s the first distinction I would make! But my coming to Armenia had less to do with idealism than with a desire to discover a new world. The writer, poet, and literary critic Vahé Oshagan was a wanderer of the world. His edict was “Move! Do not remain paralyzed in one place. Change your environment!” I actually read that in an essay you published about him and it resonated with me. He moved and wrote profusely, published eight volumes of poetry and six volumes of fiction in Armenian. In my teens, we met him one night with a group of friends in a Los Angeles cafe on Vermont Street in Hollywood, and he asked us pointedly: “What is your raison d’être?” I nearly sprayed out my cup of Lipton tea. No one drank oolong or almond milk then. It was the era before Jamba Juice, the leading global lifestyle brand. I’m still exploring the answer to that intense interrogation, but it’s certainly more interesting doing it while being in this liminal space, in between disciplines and countries, because to tell good stories, it’s essential to see things from the inside and outside, detached, so I don’t really feel attached to one place, one story.
C.A.: Tell us a little about Yann and how you worked together to create this world. Were there scenes or characters you imagined a certain way but which he expressed completely differently?
V.B.: It was hard work. I’d say there was more kinship than discord. We had this intuitive sense of what the other was doing, and we share a strong sensibility when it comes to the sardonic. All of that helped a great deal. Yann asked to read the entire story before sketching. One of the attributes I admire about Yann’s drawings, and there are many, is that at, first glance, they seem innocent, even cheerful, but they’re slightly off-kilter and uncomfortable. You can see that tension in his illustrations for the New Yorker, the NYT and the Guardian. I don’t know of another illustrator who is capable of making that leap from nice to terrifying in the same image. Our challenge was to sustain that tension in a much longer format of more than 300 pages. We worked mostly in different cities, but also in Paris during my trips there over the years. There was a lot of documentary footage, photos of riots, buildings, people and places, and interviews to unpack, and there was my story. We were also mindful, I would say, to give each other the freedom to tap into our unfettered imaginations. There was a lot of respect and trust in our collaboration, and he’s very much a magician in what he does, so my approach was to not get in the way of magic, since I find drawing a square impossible.
C.A.: Now that you’ve had a few decades to think about Oshagan’s question, have you arrived at some kind of answer — if not to describe the reason of your life then at least the purpose of your art? Is each work you take on different, or do you find yourself pursuing common patterns or meanings?
I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at some kind of an answer. I mostly come up with more questions, but I do think that the purpose of both in some way has to be connected to the act of creation. That’s the impetus and inducement, to spawn something new, purposeful and beautiful. That’s the trifecta that guides me. You see it in nature, in its patterns. You see it in the form of fibonacci’s sequence, or in the form of the golden mean, in the structures that man has built, in her paintings, films, and books. I don’t want to knock down Jeff Koons, but I don’t think his stainless steel ‘Rabbit’ meets that definition of new, purposeful and beautiful, all at the same time, and beautiful can also be asymmetrical and horrific. It doesn’t have to be this panglossian, perfect form. But ‘Koons’ ‘Rabbit comes across as vapid and lacking in innovation. It’s really more about the celebration of the spectacle and commodification of art. Some people think it’s worth paying $91 million for it. Where is the meaning in that? I once read that during the 1981 census someone described their profession as a “sculptor of stone lions.” In an answer to a follow up question “Describe what your job entails?” the responder wrote: “I chip away all the stone which is not lions.” And writers, it seems to me, are sculptors of stories too in a similar way, chipping away at all the words and sentences which are not stories. Maybe the answer to your question is somewhere in that expansive mound of clay.