I wanted to explore Russian political realities

Jennifer DuBois lives in Texas and A Partial History of Lost Causes is her first novel. It won numerous prizes and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction.

Why did you choose to include several real personalities (such as Putin, against whom Bezetov is running) as well as real events (such as the 1999 Moscow bombings)?

Though A Partial History of Lost Causes is a work of fiction, I wanted to explore Russian political realities—which meant setting it, as much as possible, in the real world. Partly, this had to do with the fact that the book spans a great deal of time—it would have been strange, I think, to read a book that uses real historical figures in the 70s, 80s, and 90s and then introduces a made-up leader in 2000. Using reality was also narratively appealing to me because I find Russia’s political reality so incredibly interesting. The 1999 bombings are a genuinely fascinating mystery, and Putin is such a great villain—all those press releases about harpooning whales and shooting tigers! I don’t think a novelist could improve on that.

Although the novel covers several decades as well as the fall of communism, the political background seems to remain a combination of censorship, surveillance and elaborate elimination of dissidents, with the FSB always clear of inquiry. Do you think there will ever be a way out of this opacity and fake democracy?

I do, though I’m not optimistic that there will be much change any time soon. In addition to the enormous obstacles that exist for any country attempting democratization, I think that Russia faces several unique challenges: its vast size, its Communist legacy, its unique position between East and West. I don’t think Russia’s relationship with Europe must inevitably be conflictual, but I also don’t think Russia is likely to ever aspire to any kind of European identity. This means that any eventual democracy will have to take a particularly Russian form, and any successful reformer will have to make the case that working toward democracy doesn’t have to mean letting Russian culture be subsumed completely into Western culture—this is particularly important, I think, since one of Putin’s favorite ways to discredit his opponents is to suggest they are stooges of the US. Strangely enough, I think one of the major barriers to substantial change has actually been the relative sturdiness of the Russian economy in recent years. Just as economic chaos tends to contribute to political upheaval, economic stability can do a lot to contain it, even in very repressive regimes (this is why so many wealthy Gulf states reacted to the Arab Spring by essentially handing their citizens money). Russia’s oil resources helped it weather the world recession fairly well. And when you compare life in Russia today to life under Communism—or even to life in the 90s, which was pretty anarchic—you realize that many people’s lives now are probably significantly better than they were. I think this provides some important context about Russians’ appetite for reform. If life is better than it’s ever been—even if it’s still not great—Russians may not be eager to follow up the past century with yet more uncertainty; they have, after all, been through revolutions before, with pretty mixed results. This may mean that things get worse in Russia before they can get better—though I hope that’s not the case.

From the remote city of Okha in Sakhalin, at the Far East of Russia, to the famous Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg and the banks of the Neva River, one could say that Russia is a full-fledged character in the novel. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely. My interest in Russia was one of the primary reasons I wrote the book. This was very different from my experience writing my second book, Cartwheel, which is set in Argentina but always felt to me like a story that might have been set anywhere; A Partial History of Lost Causes, by contrast, is actually attempting to capture something specific about the political realities of Russia today. And on a more basic level, setting the book in Russia was simply a way for me to explore my own curiosity through a sort of imaginative adventure—I think this is what all writers have to do in order to live with their books for long enough to write them.

We witness the defeat of the human brain in different situations: through Irina’s mental and physical decay, through Misha’s psychiatric internment and through Aleksandr’s defeat at a chess game against a computer. Are all mortals lost causes?

All mortals are certainly living on a clock, and our accomplishments are certainly transitory. But just because something is transitory does not mean it is not significant. That’s what Irina learns, finally, from her friendship with Aleksandr—that there can sometimes be value in what is fleeting, and triumph in what is futile.

Irina’s father sends a letter to Aleksandr Bezetov asking him what to do when he is certain that he will lose the game, with this question in particular: What story do you tell yourself when that enormous certainty is upon you and you scrape up against the edges of your own self? What would your answer be?

I think the only story you can tell yourself is what Irina and Aleksandr both come to believe—that meaning is not the same thing as permanence. Moliere said: “It is not what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.” I think it’s fair to say that it is not only for what we do and do not do, but also what we try to do, for which we are accountable. Sometimes, there is great valor—and value—in the attempt.