DEFENCELESS TERRITORIES. PERCEPTION OF MODERN UKRAINIAN LITERATURE BY GERMAN PUBLIC
Literature has always been an effective tool for cultural diplomacy. Today, more and more questions are being asked about those who are interested in our literature outside the geographical boundaries, those who translate and publish books of Ukrainian writers, and what does it mean to be a Ukrainian literary product consumer – in the world.
The answers to these questions gave us a German writer and publisher Katharina Raabe, who started the fashion for Slavic literature in Germany and Europe. Ms Katarina is an editor of the «SuhrkampVerlang», a German publishing house, and one of the most influential popularizers of Ukrainian literature in Germany. She is known for collaborations with Yurii Andrukhovych, Katerina Mishchenko, Jurko and Taras Prokhasko, Mykola Riabchuk, SerhyiZhadan, Anastasia Afanasyeva and others. In 2015 “SuhrkampVerlag” published a Ukrainian anthology entitled “Test case Ukraine: Europe and its values” edited by Katarina Raabe and Manfred Sapper.
Katharina Raabe came to Dnipro, where she participated in the second meeting of German and Ukrainian writers “The Paper Bridge.” There she talked about Ukrainian literature’s status in Germany.
The report was written and translated under the order of the “Kulturallmende” organisation for the second meeting of German and Ukrainian writers “The Paper Bridge 2016”. Special thanks to Verena Nolte who curated the project.
“You can make several short novels” from what, over a short period of time – in even less than fifteen years – behind schedule, but, maybe, that is why it is more expressive and noticeable, for the first time ever, quite a lot of Ukrainian authors different in age and sex, has appeared in West-European, specifically German-speaking public space with prose, poetry, short stories, political and opinion essays and even stage plays.
One of them would tell a story of young translators and translatresses who over a few years have become true professionals. Another would tell about Ukrainian Germanists who have supported them. The third one would be dedicated to a German publishing house which in the year 2003 counter to any economic logic allowed itself to be talked into publishing a collection by an unknown Kharkiv poet. Characters of the fourth one would be journalists and media workers who got so enthusiastic about it, that they went to Ukraine and to this day keep up interest in this topic. In the fifth one, the foreground would be filled with various foundations, sponsors, academies and juries who awarded and provided authors with public attention, international contacts, debates with other writers and politicians and of course royalties.
No doubt all these short novels, would be stories of success. But they only would tell about a niche. And though this niche is alive, is still only a niche.
Ever since Ukraine had been in war it became much more noticeable than before how tiny this group is, this civil environment and what little impact it has. Besides, it barely grows. Translators, Ukrainianists, Germanists, publicists and sponsors who get engaged in the realm of literature almost all of them are concerned about Ukraine either politically or as civic activists, within their foreign service or as freelancers – enterprise managers, journalists, guides and simultaneous interpreters.
The fact that all of them know, support and care for each other is a prerequisite for productive labour. However, sometimes I feel that people who devote themselves to Ukraine day and night, try to draw the attention of the public which consists entirely of the people who do the same. And there appears a threat of narrowing the perspective. Of course, if you begin to measure from zero knowledge, you will come across some results: people previously unrelated to Ukraine now have got an outline in mind.
But this is not enough. Contemporary Ukrainian literature should have been influential over the world, because its poetic and prosaic force, its intellectual strength can compete with literatures of France, America, Hungary, Germany or Israel. Because readers long for the better understanding of themselves and their own lives when they get head to head with a book.
Instead, they are dealing with Cossacks, Sarmatians and Hutsuls, UPA (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UIA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), NKVD and SSU (Security Service of Ukraine) and other predominantly traumatic components of collective memory which are absolutely incomprehensible without accompanying commentary for an unprepared reader. Still, several thousands of people have become readers of these books, and at the same time, experts on Ukraine, supporters of Ukraine. See above.
But it’s now, when decent translations of some of the best contemporary Ukrainian authors are widely presented in the book market, though the interest in them plummets. How can this be explained? To answer this question, we need to go back in history.
At first, it was curiosity – towards the author, towards the unknown language. The support of national emancipation project was not on the agenda.
The success of the essays collection “The last territory” by Yurii Andrukhovych was a key event. “The Ukrainian era which has lasted only for fine ten years but only in Western Ukraine … is not growing world audience yet,” wrote Iris Radisch in 2003; under the headline “Train 76 to the old Europe”. The weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT published the column dedicated to the author and his collection. Wide response (within a few months the book was reprinted three times) was useful and for other authors. Since 2005, the books of LjubkoDeresch, Oksana Zabuzhko, SerhiyZhadan and Taras Prokhasko, TymofiyHavryliv, NatalkaSniadanko and later of Tanja Maljartschuk, Sofia Andrukhovych have been published. Since 2013 Andrey Kurkov has joined this process, and with his mediation, books of the senior authours such as Maria Matios and Yuriy Vynnychuk have appeared in the market as well.
But success did not come all of a sudden. It has been hovering in the wind. At the turn of the turn of the centuries together with the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk Andrukhovych published “My Europe: Two essays on the Europe called “Central”. The Ukrainian part had been published in translation by Martin Pollack (from Polish!) in the literary magazine “Transit”, and it has attracted plenty attention. Earlier Stasiuk and his book “Dukla” (German title «Die Welt hinter Dukla») had a huge head start in the international publishing business. “World Literature”, wrote the article on account of the opening of the book fair in Frankfurt, “has established a new capital – Dukla, a town in southeastern part of Poland.
Stasiuk’s readers knew that both authors are travelling between their residences – Ivano-Frankivsk and Volovets village in the Beskids – as their ancestors were once during the Austrian or Polish times
As a result of EU expansion, Yurii Andrukhovych since the end of 2003 would be required a visa. The border, that “runs between Europe and Something Else”, as he bitterly writes in his essay “We Will Meet in Germaschka” (German title “TreffpunktGermaschka”), has moved further to the East. At the time when the accession of the eight Eastern European countries was hugely celebrated, the new border between Ukraine and Belarus troubled anyone who knew what hopes were pinned on Europe in these countries. These areas would be needed a closer look still.
First of all, our youth, who during the fall of the Wall had barely turned ten years old, discovered the adventurous seduction of the “Eastern wilds”. It was the time when during their educational trips travellers were rediscovering German-speaking East in books like “The Centre Lies Eastward» (“Die Mitteliegtostwärts”) by Karl Schlögel or “To Galicia” (“NachGalizien”) Martin Pollack. In Western Ukraine, it seemed possible to plunge again into a new post-Soviet version of the discussion about “Central Europe” and “kidnapped West” (Milan Kundera), it had been carried out in a language that would be considered a dialect of Russian.
There, in the European Wild East, right over the new border the EU, lie Lviv, Stanislav, Brody and Chernivtsi that had been turned into the Soviet-like Polish-Habsburg provinces and discovered by the young generation of Ukrainian writers, like Atlantis.
In his essays Yurii Andrukhovych was fixed on this hybrid, a particular mixture of Polish, Jewish, Austrian, Ukrainian and Soviet traces he saw in the region. This revulsion towards his own country, Ukraine, would excite readers. “Something Else” manifests itself through the potholes, rabbit hats and Russian pop songs. It was the rage towards his own country: although being technically independent, its culture and politics were captured by the corrupt, kleptocratic elites who originate from the deceased Soviet system.
Derogatory tone, bizarre from, witty language, love of lists, alphabets, catalogues, cosmologies and half-imagined city directories are as charming as the post-Soviet decline, which we failed to get rid of, turning it all into an evil grotesque.
I was not the only to learn a lot from this book. Like that Ukraine was divided into two parts: West Ukraine with European experience of civil society and mainly industrial proletarian East, where most people spoke Russian or Surzhik (a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian). This side is Galicia, other is Donbass, where completely different people live. This is how we saw it then.
The existence of the “Ukrainian case” was fascinating as well as the fact that there were people, like Andrukhovych, who wrote about it and who defended it; that there was a young nation founded on the legacy of dead empires and the narrative of the remembrance policy, the main aspects of which include the Holodomor, the Stalin’s Terror and the Chernobyl disaster.
“The Murder of a City named Stanislav” (“Die ErmordungeinerStadtnamensStanislau”)( Elisabeth Freundlich), the Shoah in Galicia, Bukovina and other parts of the Soviet Ukraine were not the dominant issue since the Jews were not the only group to be victimized and to suffer in the “intermediate Europe” devastated by Hitler and Stalin.
The thin book promised much. It opened reader’s eyes to an unknown territory, which had to be described and measured. We had no idea what was hidden beneath.
Translators were needed. And then all of a sudden… (at this point I could tell some good stories).
In October 2004, a German translation of the novel “Twelve Rings” by Andrukhovych was complete. There had still been a few months between the poisoning of Yushchenko and the presidential elections during which something was fermenting. “We’re seeing that there are two weeks left that we can live free”, the author said, while we were discussing proofreading on the phone. Along with eleven other writers he published a letter in “Ukrayinska Pravda” condemning the collaboration of “criminalized Ukrainian authorities with the neo-chekist Russian regime” warning that: “Tomorrow Ukraine will make a black hole in the centre of Europe.” Oksana Zabuzhko emailed about the “night of the long knives in Kyiv” warning, that Ukraine was building the most terrible dictatorship in Europe since Hitler and Stalin.
After the start of the Orange Revolution, while working on a book, only a sense of déjà vu exceeded this wondrous feeling as if I was a part of history: the spirit of action, masquerades and performances which took place in the streets and squares, their carnival luxury – it felt as if I have seen it somewhere – in the novel I’ve already sent to print.
So we ordered Mykola Riabchuk a short book to clear things up with the protests. We wanted him to tell the German readers in a clear manner about the “Real and Imagined Ukraine” (“Die reale und die imaginierte Ukraine”) putting it into the historical and political plane. I suggested the title and it pleased his taste: on the one hand, there is European Ukraine adherent to the Western values, on the other hand, it is different: corrupt and kleptocratic; and so people took to the streets to overcome this latter. Orange-versus-blue. Yushchenko-versus-Yanukovych. Only after our collaboration, I became aware of how much the struggle between the two power elites and their environments in the West (Galicia, Kyiv) and the East (Donbass) was coloured by political history.
Explosive barrels were buried in the soil of an unknown territory: they would rather be not touched, and even more so by the Germans. The negative image of “the Russians”, who simply were equated with the Soviets, was unpleasantly impressive, as well as a reminding of the Jews who, dressed in the NKVD uniform, were murdering locals.
Thanks to the Orange Revolution there was a small boom.
“If this book appeared not in the wild East, but in the relaxed West”, as SüddeutscheZeitung wrote about the LjubkoDeresch’s novel “Cult”, “we would regard it as phoney, contrived and epigonous. But in this case, we read it as an authentic expression of the intellectual situation in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet empire. For the East is a projection of our own extreme fantasies that we have not experienced”.
The “Stanislav Phenomenon”, sons of Bruno Schulz and Sacher-Masoch, daughters of LesyaUkrainka and OlhaKobylianska – these were Ukrainian Literature. It seemed to be more vivid, playful, “more Central European” (meaning the Esterhazy’s definition) than Polish, let alone Russian. Not playing the role of a “gap filler” anymore, Ukrainian books were comforting us in situations when along with the start of the Putin era it has become incredibly difficult to find convincing works of modern Russian literature for our programme. The tendency local young authors adhered to was leading them to neo-socialist realism manner, aesthetic conservatism and political diabolism. You could already recognise the echoes of the imperialist chauvinism between the lines of their works.
By the way, the idea to seek Russian-speaking authors in Ukraine hasn’t occurred to me.
Opposite to Yurii Andrukhovych was SerhiyZhadan. Being one generation younger, he wrote about those eastern areas, we saw as something negative looking at it from a remote Galicia’s perspective.
Andrukhovych admired Habsburg’s ruins, Zhadan loved abandoned industrial facilities of Donbass. Serhyi’s youth passed in the last years of the Soviet Union, he became of age the year Ukraine declared independence. Post-Soviet Kharkiv, as well as the Donbass’ landscapes and hills, from which “the view of a sun-drenched valley and a defenceless city was offered” was a stage for his prose, which developed from the lyrical story.
In 2010, with the novel “Vorochilovgrad” (German title “Die Erfindung des Jazz im Donbass”, 2012), Zhadan, who once called “Central Europe” a concept from Andrukhovych’s vocabulary, created a geopoeticalcounterpole to the drowned Atlantis at the foot of the Carpathians: Donbass, being a region of aliens, multilingual, multi-ethnic resembles Galicia. He converts “the great landscape on this side of Stalingrad” into semi-realistic, sometimes even mythical space: fantastic-looking steppe nomads who live in battered camps, people of different origins who follow a priest to the Promised Land, while trains convey smugglers over the horizon and the abandoned aerodrome has to be defended from a local oligarch. The protagonist, Herman, is revolted by the irresponsibility of dubious snobs, businessmen, bankers, young lawyers, politicians who leave only scorched earth behind themselves and don’t feel any responsibility for anything they do.
But it is not only a geographical counterpole. National narrative dominates works of Andrukhovych (as well as of Oksana Zabuzhko, Maria Matios, Yuriy Vynnychuk, Taras Prokhasko etc.): who are we, Ukrainians, who no longer want to be a Russia’s colony? Where is our place? Where do we come from? Who is with us and who is not? Zhadan formulates these questions in a different way. Who are we, citizens of an independent country, who want to get rid of their corrupted elites? What do we want to live like? How can we live together? He follows the social narrative. But maybe these are the questions for another generation?
The value of this book, which has surpassed all his previous works by its complexity, wasn’t appreciated in our country. Critics complained about the lack of form, excessive drinking, idle talks on solidarity. Only Jan Bether, a writer himself, noted in his review the alarming insight of the book: “A reader wonders when this country will finally explode, and is it our capitalism or we do we simply misunderstand it? While locals continue ignoring the basic rules of human coexistence, there will always be victims. SerhyiZhadan … lives by literature, and this novel is his personal enterprise. And in this way, he shows us how in times of crisis at least his business takes responsibility” (Die Welt, 11.11.2012).
In 2014, the novel became dreadfully topical. In his acceptance speech at the Brücke-Berlin Awards Zhadan said: “Perhaps, it is the worst thing that could ever happen to a writer when events he has imagined and described comе true, or when his fictional characters come to live, take guns and just destroy one other. Then you suddenly realise all the helplessness and vulnerability of literature before the Moloch of war, before the cynicism and insidiousness of politicians”.
Zhadan is consistently engaged in his business. Like the characters in his novels who see and comment on the world from different perspectives, he tries to talk to people who are “strange” because they are supportive of the separatists, or because they don’t care, as Luhansk poet Elena Zaslavskaya said in 2014 in Berlin, who is going to “protect them from the Kyiv’s Nazis” Zhadan’s attempt to invite her to an international symposium in Kharkiv for discussion resulted in scandal. General Consul of Germany had to send Zaslavska to a safe place in order to save her from the wrath of the Right Sector supporters. Ingo Schulze devoted a story to this piquant event entitled “Kharkov in Europe” (Akzente 3/2016).
Watching the rapid decline of the state system in the East of the country, horrified, we have also begun to ask ourselves: Where are they – the authors of the Donetsk, Luhansk and Simferopol or Dnipropetrovsk? Where are their works? Why don’t we even know their names?
Historian Andrij Portnow accuses West-Ukrainian authors, who have been shaping our understanding of Ukraine for ten years already – like Andrukhovych, Riabchuk and others – of “Galician reductionism”, which is based on “Donbass’ orientalisation”, which began in the 1990-s.
It’s possible, that this reproach concerns us as well because, in fact, we haven’t published any other authors from the East of the country except for Zhadan. As well as no one who writes in Russian. Has this kind of a publishing policy contributed to sustaining the idea of two Ukraines: the West one, with the focus of Europe, and the East one that is of a Russian-Soviet kind?
From the beginning, no Russian author has suggested any Ukrainian colleague. And none of us who read in Russian, could at the same time read in Ukrainian. It had happened so that Andruknovych’s Ba-Ba-Bu group and Oksana Zabuzhko’s “Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex” became known not because they were recognised in Russia, but thanks to the Polish translators who were involved in these projects back in the 1990-s. So the path to Ukraine didn’t run through Moscow or St. Petersburg to Kyiv, but through the southern border of Poland, through Carpathian valleys, through Lemko villages, through the “Centre of Europe” to Lviv, and finally to Kharkiv.
Because geopolitics has to be eloquently balanced with geopoetics.
New borders, the pursuit of Europe, the post-Soviet space exploration – these reasons have led to the “discovery of Ukrainian, that is of Ukrainian literature”, which should not be confused with the “discovery of literature of Ukraine.”
In the spring of 2014, it turned out that plenty of writers were a lucky break for Ukraine. They were making speeches in Frankfurt, Berlin and other cities, altering misconceptions, exposing lies of the Russian propaganda. Perhaps, the absurdity of national categories was exposed thanks to their help: Andrey Kurkov, the Russia’s best-selling author of the 1990-s, turned out to be an ethnic Russian-speaking Ukrainian who soothed the ignorant, who were crying about the threat to his native language. Katya Petrovska was disproving of widespread cliché of the fierce anti-Semitism and spoke on behalf of the “Different Russia” – those scattered people who were supportive of Maidan and were branded as traitors at home.
Is Katya Petrovska a Ukrainian author?
At the beginning I’ve said that today’s interest in Ukrainian books plummeted. The reason for this is that after a year and a half of intense debate and numerous books, and the ubiquitous presence in the national media emancipatory project became clear as well as literature that identifies with it. Since summer 2015 our country has been facing its own serious challenges as refugees, radicalization, fear of terrorism, the threat of the EU collapse and the catastrophe in the Middle East. Hard times for readers of literature in general, let alone the literature from Ukraine.
But be patient. The situation will change in couple of years. What the post-Maidan society is going through and will have become a request for writers, a subject for novels, essays, poetry, theatre plays, stories about the experience of war, violence, injustice, defenselessness, expulsion, escape and assistance that equally concern to all of us.
Literature is also defenceless. It can do nothing neither protect itself nor others. Not to mention when it associates with the national project. No book will help avert violence. However, you can try to avoid all kinds of reductionism and exoticism.
Zhadan and Petrovska allowed us to see how this can be achieved that is to build bridges though belonging to different languages and groups.
A Russian-speaking author from Kyiv who was finishing her first book in Berlin, while her friends stood on Maidan, was the only German author, prepared to explain the role of Russia and Ukrainian nationality to the German TV audience during the dramatic weeks of the spring of 2014.
György Konrád once called Europe a “verbal continent” since here within a very small space people think, dream and write in more languages than elsewhere. Europe owes its “strength and power” largely to “its people who are rather huge readers” He reminds us, the citizens of the national states, that our history as Europeans is a “history of learning”. Learning that we share biography, that it’s our mutual novel of education. Or better: a novel of self-education (essay “Europe and the National States”, German title: “Europa und die Nationalstaaten. Essay”. Berlin 2013, S. 24).
Ukraine, being experienced in bi- and multilingualism, having its tragic history, its courageous “Revolution of Dignity” and its freedom project would have been a part of our European novel of education and self-education.
But that would mean crossing the border, broadening the context: why Ukrainian authors always have to write only about Ukrainian things? Doesn’t this lead to self-exoticism and estrangement? Why don’t they write in other languages and in other places? Maybe carry a transnational life?
Literature undoubtedly plays a certain role in European self-education. However, only indirectly, when it deals with itself and not with its country of origin.
“Keep an eye on Ukraine”, Yurii Andrukhovich called for Europeans back in 2006.
“Don’t leave us”, asked people of the defenceless territories Zhadan and his friends in the summer of 2016.
We could have written a couple of (long) stories from that…