Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Robert Rosenberg (page 3)
 Talking with
Robert Rosenberg
page 1
page 2
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What is the significance of the title?
This Is Not Civilization comes from a moment of dialogue early in the novel. A Russian man, one of the few Russians left in the Kyrgyz village, tries to forge a connection with Jeff, the American volunteer. As the other white man, a fellow intellectual, he feels they share a superiority to the Kyrgyz people, and denigrates their culture. He scoffs at their traditions: the eating of sheep eyes, the drinking of horse milk, the lack of education in the local population. “This is not civilization,” he says at one point in their conversation.
     I like the way the statement hangs over the novel, and colors the reader’s experience with the various settings. The reader does not have to agree with Yuri Samonov’s statement (certainly Jeff Hartig doesn’t agree). In many respects the traditions and sense of community in the isolated villages of Red Cliff and Kyzl Adyr are more civilized than the traffic and corruption and capitalism of modern day Istanbul, or even of America.
     Milan Kundera once said, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.” To me the title asks, “If this isn’t civilization, then what is?” It’s my hope the novel is provocative and raises questions of this kind.
Can you talk about the 1999 Istanbul earthquake, and its role in the novel?
In August, 1999, I took a job teaching in Istanbul. A few nights after I arrived I was shaken out of sleep, like the rest of the city, by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The floors of my apartment were bucking, and I looked out the window at the city. At that instant all electricity and lights were cut off. It was a terrible moment, and it’s painful still to remember. According to the government, at least 17,000 people died around me. Outside estimates put the number at something like 40,000. The neighborhood I lived in, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, withstood the shaking pretty well. But the city and country were devastated, and my experience in Turkey over the next two years was colored by the disaster.
     I wondered how the characters I was beginning to envision would react, faced with a tragedy of these proportions. How would it affect their motivations to find a new life? How would seeing great numbers of people in a developing nation suddenly homeless, jobless, and without family affect their own understanding of the native lands they had left?
     The earthquake came at a significant time, in my mind. The early and mid-nineties, the time of Jeff’s service in the Peace Corps, were a time of great hope for the nations of the former Soviet Union. The people were convinced they had shaken off the tethers of a flawed system, and would now join the world in a fresh system of liberty and democracy that would lead to prosperity. And it was a moment of great optimism for Americans abroad as well. The Cold War was over; it was a lucky time to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the former Soviet Union. You were befriending your once arch enemies. There was a definite sense that just being there made a difference.
     But so much of the change has stalled or gone wrong. A decade later former communist leaders still rule like dictators over all of Central Asia, and the economies are in dire straits. In this way the earthquake reflects the political reality of the character’s lives in the novel, the seismic shifts in their cultures. It was somehow an appropriate ending to the close of the century, and of the novel. Now, looking back after 9/11, the nineties seems like a brief age of innocence — probably like the 1920s must have seemed to someone looking back during the Great Depression.
  
Who do you read? What writers have had an influence on your writing?
I was influenced by some of my own favorite writers, who include E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, V.S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Paul Theroux. I am drawn to these writers because of their broad world view, their exotic locations, the ways in which their characters are often displaced, geographically, in situations that illuminate the clash of cultures and values. These novelists also write about periods of tremendous historical, political, or economic change (the end of colonialism, the Cold War, African independence) and their characters are cast adrift in history, struggling to stay afloat.
     This Is Not Civilization follows a similar formula, in that my characters are facing the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the desperation of saving a native culture in the midst of globalization, and the tragic consequences of the earthquake in Turkey.
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