The “Russian from Central Casting:” Wladimir Kaminer and his German Best-Sellers

Adrian Wanner, Pennsylvania State University

Wladimir Kaminer is currently one of Germany’s most popular writers. His first book, Russendisko (2000), a collection of vignettes of Russian émigré life in Berlin, turned him into an instant celebrity. Since then Kaminer has published seven more books that all landed on the Spiegel bestseller list. His works have sold over 1.2 million copies in Germany alone and have been translated into fifteen languages, including Russian and English. In addition, he writes regular columns for a multitude of German newspapers and magazines, he runs a weekly radio show, and his Russian Disco has become a legendary staple of Berlin’s nightlife.

Born in Moscow in 1967, Kaminer had no knowledge of the German language when he emigrated to what was then still the GDR in 1990. His meteoric rise as the “shooting star” of German literature triggers several questions that this paper will address. How can we explain Kaminer’s extraordinary success with the German public? What is his national identity as a writer? Does he belong in the company of other successful “translingual” Russian writers such as Vladimir Nabokov or Andreï Makine? Are his indefatigable graphomania and commercial success an index of literary greatness, or rather the opposite?

As the title of his first book indicates, the topic of “Russianness” looms large in Kaminer’s literary self-fashioning and public persona. He frequently refers to himself as “der Russe vom Dienst” (loosely translatable as “the Russian from central casting”), and his public performances are announced with phrases like “Der Russe kommt!” (“The Russian is coming!”). Kaminer skillfully capitalizes on German clichés about the Russian national character by playing on such stereotypes as the Russian penchant for hard drinking, sentimentality, and chaotic spontaneity, which are antagonistically opposed to notions of German neatness, dullness and pedantry. While consciously playing with received ideas about Russian culture, however, Kaminer simultaneously undermines them with his own, “hip” version of Russianness. Kaminer’s intentionally tacky version of the “Russian soul” is a (self)-ironic performance that can be enjoyed as a postmodern pastiche, but nevertheless attracts hordes of German fans hungry for Russian “authenticity.”

To be sure, Kaminer’s status as a paragon of Russianness would have raised eyebrows with some of his former co-patriots. Kaminer’s ambivalent attitude toward his Jewish identity will be discussed alongside his newly acquired German persona. Using Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s notion of a “Minor Literature” for theoretical guidance, this paper will highlight Kaminer’s oeuvre as a form of multicultural, minimalist “pop art” that seems to exploit a market niche by successfully challenging received trends of German literature.