You titled your book Empire and Odyssey[Reviews, Feb. 27]. "Odyssey" describes the four generations of Brynners shifting around the world; does "empire" refer to Russia?
Russia, yes, but also Jules Brynner's empire. He was the Rockefeller of the Far East; there wasn't anyone like him. There's also Yul's empire, although his was more movable. Nonetheless, Yul was recognized as a king—even by Queen Elizabeth. Do you recall that photo in the book, of the queen with Yul? Of all the photos of her smiling, you've never seen a smile that broad before. And Yul's smile seems to convey, "At last, an equal!"
There's more to the book than the story of Yul Brynner, though.
Sure, many people will buy this book just for the Yul Brynner part, and they're going to have to get through a couple hundred pages of Russian history before he's even born—but I'm convinced the story is so interesting that they'll even like the Russian history. It's full of irresistible morsels, like the one about the partisan Sergei Lazo getting stuffed in the engine of the locomotive by the Cossacks, or why St. Petersburg becomes Petrograd. I do love this Russian thing of changing names— as if, "Oh, now everything will be all right!"
Did your father [Yul] talk to you about family history?
When he left Russian [in 1926] he left all that behind. It wasn't his character to think backward; he was always facing forward. Also, for most families of diaspora, it was too painful to think of what had been lost. And the finality of the Stalinist era was so thorough that no one dreamed of going back. Of course, that also liberated my father to invent whatever stories he wanted about his youth. Twenty years ago, when my father died, no one dreamed that I'd ever be able to come back and put a plaque on the house where he was born.
Was it hard organizing so much material into a single volume?
Yes, four generations in one book. From Rasputin to Robbie Robertson, from Czar Nicholas to Muhammad Ali—I don't know what it's like to read that! There are curious themes running through each of the four stories. There's opium: Jules on his pirate ships, seizing opium from merchants along the Silk Route, all the way through to me playing Cocteau in Opiumon Broadway.
The book raises important questions in the philosophy of history: is there an underlying logic?
Ultimately, I have to say, it's forces of history which brought me back to Russia, along with my often indiscriminate curiosity.... Actually, I'm already a significant figure in Vladivostok's history because I represent the diaspora. I'm a son of Russia returning.