Being a Jester
This series of articles accompanies PROPAGANDA: A Festival Celebrating Russian Voices. Through the lens of contemporary Russian theater, the series spotlights Russia's recent anti-propaganda law in relation to sport, performance, and LGBT and Olympic history. The series is curated by Lauren Keating, the Festival's Producing Artistic Director.
It never occurred to me that one day I would be balancing between two worlds, floating from the past to the unstable future like my favorite puppet called the Jester.
That’s where my book The Jester’s Cap (2013) had begun. There—and in the theater.
Like its main character, Grisha, I felt that the theater was my real home, my territory of personal freedom, both inner and external. Thus when I began writing there was just Grisha, “the theater’s child,” Jester, the unique puppet, Lyolik, the old puppet-making genius who could make peculiar puppets that seemed almost alive—and the theater itself. From the very beginning I knew that it would be the rightful character of the book, living, breathing, and taking part in all its events. Then I came up with Sam, the star and charismatic actor who had to practically run away to liberal Holland where homosexuals could live a free life impossible in their homeland. And Sashok, a tomboy, Grisha’s best friend, who helped Grisha find himself. My characters find themselves in the puppet theater—the citadel of freedom as opposed to the cruelty, strict hierarchy, and injustice of the world outside it.
All in all, the book did write itself in almost an ad-lib fashion. And as a natural part of the theatrical word there came the issue of homosexuality. I’d seen gay actors in my childhood in Russia, thus I saw them as a routine part of life and theater. That’s how I deal with it in my book.
When I realized that it would be perceived as a book about freedom of sexuality as well as freedom of the soul I became a little scared. Not only because my book was to be the first book touching such issues in Russian literature for young adults. Could it be a big deal—to be the first Russian author of a young adult gay novel?
I was scared because I did realize that if my book would be published it would be an attack on a cultural taboo against homosexuality that gays had been living under in our society. The ill-fated laws hadn’t been adopted then, but there had always been a quite voluntary undeclared taboo. The book “Oh, boy” by Marie-Aude Murail had been accepted quite hesitantly even by literary critics and librarians in Russia just because of its homosexual characters. Maybe that’s why the Samokat Publishing House had been hesitant to publish The Jester's Cap for almost a year and a half. (The very Samokat that had published Marie-Aude Murail’s book.)
And there came the time when we realized that we could postpone no more. The ill-fated propaganda law was to be accepted as the federal statute. That meant we could have lost at least several years if we didn’t release the book at once. I feel a great sympathy for those crazy in a good way folks—the staff of Samokat. While preparing The Jester’s Cap’s presentation at the Moscow book fair, I got acquainted with the movement called Children-404—this initiative for gay teenagers in Russia took its name from the internet notation of a deleted or blocked page: Error 404 (Page Not Found). It is a very courageous public internet project which supports homosexual, bisexual and transgender teenagers in Russia. And, subsequently, my book became the mascot of this movement.
The movement came to life after the journalist Lena Klimova published the article called “The Pervert State” and began to receive letters from homosexual teenagers. They told their heart-breaking and moving stories of being rendered invisible by the new law. Sometimes it was quite impossible not to cry over them. Lena and her confederates created a Web page of the movement in popular social networks. Now the project counts about a thousand letters and some Internet pages where homosexual teenagers can be free to speak about their needs and feelings and get support and help. And I was happy to know that my book has given them comfort and inspiration, too.
The Jester’s Cap has also traveled to the United States. My theatrical adaptation of Jester’s Cap will soon be performed at the Propaganda: Russian Voices Festival in New York. It was terribly exciting and at the same time very difficult task—to melt the book into a play. A nearly impossible task, because you get used to seeing it from quite a different angle. In the book we see everything from Grisha’s point of view. And what is more—we see Sam as Grisha sees him, and that’s important, for we at once understand how the boy adores and admires his friend the actor. In the play we see the events from quite another perspective and it is difficult to understand Sam’s charisma. It becomes the task of the director and the actors to project that. And it is weird for the author.
While the novel is some kind of “thing in itself,” a crystal sphere that is a tiny copy of the world, the play makes you believe that everything can happen there. A book is a crystal sphere that is almost impossible to get within. A play is a construction set, you can build everything you can and you wish.
A book is a magical world. You cannot create it without living with it inside yourself, without breathing in unison. That’s why when I was writing the crucial piece, when Grisha made the Jester puppet to replace the one sold to a private collection, and set himself free while making it, I felt an obligation to make a puppet myself. My father taught me to make masks out of papier-mâché when I was a kid. And so I took plasticine, glue, and old newspapers and made my Jester alongside Grisha. In the play this moment became different, too. Here it is some kind of junction, a thread that holds the story. The key piece of the construction set. It commences the story and ends it.
I’m drawn to the issues of transition from “here” to “there” because my experience of emigrating from Russia to Austria made me feel I didn't properly belong to any country. You feel that no one understands you right, because you absorbed the two worlds that mixed up in you and made you a complete alien. I want to write that we are all strangers in this world; we all are but guests in each and every country. And I feel akin to those who are different from the others and who live a life of soul solitude because of this. I’m like them, and my Jester from The Jesters’ Cap is like them, too. It is about the combination of things that cannot be combined. About the bitterness of growing older and getting free. It is as if you are on a night train and your station is far behind. And you don’t even know your destination.
I hope I was able to retain the Jester metaphor in the play: The metaphor of obtaining inner freedom where you can’t have external freedom, something that has been elusive for the homosexual youth in Russia. The jester is a man upside down, a king upside down. For the cap of the jester is no less than the crown upside down!
The jester is a sacral being, for long ago people believed that the black-and-white rhombuses on the jester’s dress are numerous magical eyes that could see the past, the present and the future. The jester impersonates the sublime and the low, drama and comedy, light and darkness. The jester as the puppet is the model of a man and at the same time the very essence of a man. “Until you finish the puppet, you yourself are somehow incomplete,” says Grisha. Sam agrees, “When you first imagine a puppet, it’s already not yours anymore. It exists in and of itself—from the first minute.”
My Moscow publishers share this point of view. It’s in the words printed in the rear cover of the book. “Children are not plasticine, and to make them betray themselves means to break them. Everyone who once was a child knows this—but not everybody remembers it. Can you? Someone must break this vicious circle. Let it be you.”
Someone must break the circle.
Translated from Russian by Anna Loginova