Yuri Zipit is brain damaged but there are things he understands – that being official food taster for the leader of the Soviet Union requires him to drink too much vodka for a 12-year-old, and that you do not have to be an elephantologist to see that the great leader is dying. Christopher Wilson’s latest novel The Zoo (Faber, £12.99) is a fictional account of the last days of Stalin seen through the eyes of a disabled boy who earns the tyrant’s trust. It’s biting satire in which the most absurd details are based on fact.
What did the view of a child, particularly one with a disability, allow you to do as a writer?
The novel is the perfect medium for showing what goes on in our heads. Unusual minds show – through a negative image – what’s involved in normality. We think we’re in control, but we all muddle through with imperfect knowledge and limited experience. I wanted an unreliable narrator to tell a story to the reader that he didn’t understand himself. Yuri, the child here, has brain damage that prevents him feeling or understanding anger. As a result he’s blind to the malice around him. Yuri is too kind and pleasant to understand the politics that shape his world. It’s too mean to make sense. Yuri is extreme. But, basically, we’re all in his position, I feel – telling a story we don’t fully understand.
There’s also a personal angle for me. About 12 years ago I had a series of cardiac arrests, like the footballer Fabrice Muamba. I kept being resuscitated. When I finally came to, everyone spoke to me as if I was an idiot – “Do you know where you are?”, “Do you know your name?” – because when the heart stops the brain gets starved of oxygen. I didn’t have any lasting loss of function but I felt bashed around mentally for a few years. So, in The Zoo, to some extent, I was writing inside that experience as a damaged mind.
Yuri and Comrade Iron-Man share some similarities, particularly with their physical disfigurements. Would Stalin’s story have taken a different path if he’d had a loving and supportive father like Yuri’s?
Like most of us, tyrants learn on the job. So they get better – i.e. worse – over time. They turn themselves into monstrosities by gradually weakening or eliminating the controls and people that could keep them in check. And once you cross a moral boundary, it’s easier to go further the next time. It would be reassuring to think that a parent’s love could prevent someone growing into a Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Gaddafi, but I don’t think it’s so. I knew someone who grew up with the Kray Twins and said their mum, Violet, loved them rotten. But they showed their form early on. So, at their tenth birthday party, they tied up all the other boys, so they could eat all the food themselves.
I think there are a mix of factors involved in producing a tyrant – some brutalising experiences, personality predisposition, low or absent empathy, and entering into a mind-set or ideology that sees other people as expendable things. But the causality is very individual and intricate. There are series of delicate hinges. Stalin trained at theological college but lacked a Christian faith. Hitler’s early ambition was to be an artist. If he hadn’t been rejected for art school, in Egon Schiele’s intake, he might have made his living as an embittered and rather poor painter of Alpine scenes.
Personal food tasters, body doubles and experiments in human-ape hybrids and attempts to raise the dead are just some of the details in The Zoo that actually happened under Stalin’s rule. Why did you choose to thinly veil these already absurd realities?
This book never mentions the words “Russia” or “Stalin”. Is this what you mean? As it happens, it’s Yuri, the narrator, who changes everyone’s names. It’s nothing to do with me. He confides at the start – “It’s dangerous to speak their full, real names… there are several titles and personages I cannot even mention.”
As it is, it suits me too. This isn’t a factual account of Stalin’s last days, it’s a story told by a confused child, of a parallel Stalin in a parallel world, defined, distorted and limited by Yuri’s information. And this has the benefit of freeing me from the shackles of historical accuracy.
With total media control it was easy for Stalin to create a world of alternative facts, but how can we be living in a post-truth time in an era of total access to information?
I was a really early adopter of the web. Twenty years ago, it seemed this was a friendly, mutually supportive, hippyish network, with relatively few users, that allowed well-intentioned people to give help and share information. Hardly anyone was selling anything. All that idealism and generosity is still there. But now the givers-and-sharers are outnumbered now by the chancers, opportunists, bigots, egotists, sellers, liars, spammers, fraudsters… So, when you look at a site, you first have to ask yourself: “What’s their angle?”
But, overall, it’s great. More people have more access. The gatekeepers exert less control. It’s fantastically democratising. Take music making or writing. Twenty years ago you had to wait for some elite company to give you the sniff of an opening. Now you can upload your music or your book and the world can buy it. Or ignore it. You can self-publish on Amazon and look and behave like a “real” publisher.
If you don’t like Trump, you can direct-message him and tell him why. If you’re lucky enough, he’ll block you. Then you can tell the world about that too. He has his account, but you have your account. There are freedoms and opportunities that might have seemed utopian a while back. Sure, the powerful still have a louder voice, more power and access. But the internet really evens things up.
If the “Amerikan Western shows the moral emptiness, the lawlessness of Kapitalist culture” why was Stalin so enamoured with them?
There’s always the sound, public rationale, and then there’s the secretive, private reason. Stalin was a genuine film-lover. He thought film was the great medium of the twentieth century, for propaganda, for entertainment and for artistic expression. But maybe he also secretly identified with the solitary gun slinger who saves the day. We’ve all seen the photo of a topless Putin riding. Maybe there’s a cowboys-and-Cossacks overlap of Russian and American mythologies, involving the horse and the wide-open space. Word has it, Stalin’s favourite films were the Tarzan series and James Cagney’s “you double-crossing rat” gangster movies. Again, he might have found some point of identification.
Why did you choose a life of begging and homelessness for a toppled Comrade Iron-Man?
I think Stalin was probably poisoned at Beria’s behest, probably with Khruschev’s co-operation, and given an anti-coagulant that caused a stroke. To make sure he died, they left him to worsen without medical care for a couple of days. But in this book I give him a different fate. His colleagues shave off his hair, dress him in rags, change his appearance, dope him up and drop him off to a homeless life on Moscow’s streets.
Life likes sharp contrasts and so does fiction. Gaddafi ended up on the street. Saddam was found in a hole in the ground. It’s the complete character arc if the man who has everything ends up with nothing. Except that, on the streets, my Stalin still does finds something to sustain him. He rejoins socialism. He joins a community where people sometimes pool their resources and help each other.
Is the evil of Stalin’s genocide diminished in comparison to Hitler’s because of its methodology or because we used the former to defeat the latter?
This is very difficulty moral turf – deciding which mass killer is least-worst. How do you judge? Sheer numbers killed? Proportion of total populations? Motives for the killings? Are some genocides less evil than others? Murder is murder. It doesn’t add up. It’s not an accountancy issue. With Stalin and Hitler, the evil was in objectifying people as disposable objects. But even monsters have their reasons. And it’s a novelist’s job to empathise with his characters. Earlier in life at least, Stalin had some clear personal virtues. He was extremely hard working, he was a compulsive learner, voraciously curious, he had a love of nature, sensitivity to language, egalitarian reflexes. Unlike many other tyrants, he wasn’t a sexual predator, he didn’t have a lavish lifestyle and he didn’t pocket the nation’s wealth. Of course, he had a mixed record on family and personal relationships. He may have killed his second wife. He certainly condemned several in-laws. He was known to be loyal and protective to friends until he had them shot.
Do you think Putin can envisage a life for himself after the presidency or will he want to stay in power forever?
It’s hard to think of an absolute ruler who ever decided to resign or take early retirement, to spend more time with his family. They tend to die in power or get toppled. I understand Putin has indicated a magnanimous willingness to lead Russia for further terms, and perhaps help out with some neighbouring territory too.