Yuriy An­drukhovych: “I don't like ba­nal­ity, so I don't meet the read­ers' ex­pec­ta­tions”

“I don’t like ba­nal­ity, so I don’t meet the read­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions”

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Bo­hdana Ro­mantsova

Mod­ern Ukrainian writer talks with

The Ukrainian Week about the in­vest­ments in cul­ture, the new gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers and Ukraine's place in the lit­er­a­ture map of the world

On Septem­ber 17, Yuriy An­drukhovych vis­ited Kyiv to present Lithog­ra­phy, his new al­bum with the band Kar­bido, at the Ukrainian Ra­dio’s Record­ing Stu­dio. Be­fore that, The Ukrainian Week spoke to him about in­vest­ments in cul­ture, the new gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers and Ukraine’s place in the lit­er­a­ture map of the world.

You have just re­leased Lithog­ra­phy, your fifth joint al­bum with the band Kar­bido based on the lyrics of your Lithog­ra­phy cy­cle of po­ems pub­lished back in the 1980s. Can you tell us more about your work with Kar­bido? Is it still a Pol­ish band af­ter a Ukrainian drum­mer joined it?

— We started work­ing to­gether in War­saw back in 2005 at the an­nual po­etry fes­ti­val. The or­ga­niz­ers in­vited Kar­bido as a mu­sic back­ground for the po­ets’ per­for­mances. The band did not have to know the po­ems by heart, but it had to re­spond to how the per­son re­cites the po­ems and cre­ate the am­bi­ence for it with im­pro­vi­sa­tion. It was some­what dif­fer­ent with me – I had al­ready recorded a CD with the Pol­ish jazzman Mikołaj Trza­ska by then. So the or­ga­niz­ers de­cided that it would be best for me to ar­rive a day ear­lier and try to cre­ate some­thing with Kar­bido in ad­vance. We got on re­ally well then.

About ten po­ets par­tic­i­pated in that po­etry night, seven or eight of them Ukraini­ans as that year’s fes­ti­val was the­mat­i­cally ac­cented on Ukraine. You see, even po­etry events al­ways walk hand in hand with our po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments. The Orange Revo­lu­tion had played its role – an an­thol­ogy of Ukrainian po­etry was im­me­di­ately pub­lished in Poland. I had a long 20-minute per­for­mance with Kar­bido. But the band is con­stantly chang­ing. Kar­bido is a flex­i­ble struc­ture where dif­fer­ent mu­si­cians get to­gether for one or sev­eral projects. The bassist is the only mu­si­cian stay­ing in the band from the time of our first per­for­mance. To­masz Sikora plays sax­o­phone but he was our sound di­rec­tor at that Wro­claw Fes­ti­val.

Why did you choose the Lithog­ra­phy cy­cle, not your more re­cent po­ems?

— The project was ini­ti­ated by Port Franko, a fes­ti­val in Ivano-Frankivsk. Its pri­or­i­ties in­cluded work­ing with spe­cific lo­ca­tions in Ivano-Frankivsk, recul­ti­va­tion of the city ter­ri­tory, in­clud­ing of the Po­tocki Palace com­plex. The palace used to host a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal and is al­most ru­ined by now. But Porto Franko ac­tivists and or­ga­niz­ers thought of us­ing the lo­ca­tion for in­no­va­tive art projects. So this was a re­quest from the fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing some­thing new, de­voted to the his­tor­i­cal as­pects of our city’s de­vel­op­ment. We did not fin­ish the project by 2016, so we pre­sented it at the 2017 fes­ti­val. In the mean­time, we were look­ing for a new drum­mer and found Ihor Hny­dyn to work on Lithog­ra­phy at the Bi­ałowieża For­est as part of Kar­bido. Now I’m fi­nally close to an­swer­ing your ques­tion. When we had to de­cide on the lyrics for the project, I re­mem­bered my Lithog­ra­phy cy­cle pub­lished back in 1989 with the Sered­mis­tia (The Heart of the Town) col­lec­tion and was never per­formed any­where. I reread it and thought that I could fix half a line of so, but the text was worth work­ing with. I had writ­ten that cy­cle based on clear cri­te­ria: the po­ems had to rhyme well and have in­ter­est­ing, un­ex­pected rhyth­mi­cal pat­terns. Lithog­ra­phy went well with the mu­sic so­lu­tions be­cause I had in­vested great ef­forts into mak­ing those po­ems have their own in­ter­nal mu­sic back in 1989.

Pop­u­lar Ukrainian writ­ers, in­clud­ing Ser­hiy Zhadan, your­self and Irena Karpa, are mak­ing their mu­sic projects and work­ing with ready­made bands. Why is this trend emerg­ing? Is this a ro­man­tic as­pi­ra­tion for synes­the­sia, a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent me­dia? Or is it that the writ­ers do not be­lieve that po­etry with­out any ac­com­pa­ni­ment can still im­press the au­di­ence?

— Let’s not men­tion “don’t be­lieve” be­cause this is not about it. Irena Karpa’s case is dif­fer­ent – she is a mu­si­cian who be­came a writer. She started as a singer at the punk band Fuck­ty­chno Sami (Alone, Ac­tu­ally) and wrote her first prose as a well-known per­former in the sub­cul­ture com­mu­nity.

In fact, many of are de­pen­dent on mu­sic. We are mu­sic lovers. This is about pas­sive con­sump­tion up to a cer­tain point, when you can’t write any­thing un­less you turn on a spe­cific tune. Over the years, you col­lect your fa­vorite mu­sic, per­form­ers and pieces. At some point, writ­ers de­velop per­sonal con­tacts with bands – like I have with Kar­bido. This is not a uniquely Ukrainian phe­nom­e­non. I know at least three or four Euro­pean fes­ti­vals in Slo­vakia, France and Aus­tria, ded­i­cated to such al­liances ex­clu­sively: their whole pro­grams are built on the per­for­mances of po­ets and mu­sic bands. I see it as a con­se­quence of rock-nroll emerg­ing and spread­ing in the world in the 1960s and 1970s, and mu­sic be­com­ing some­thing big­ger than just the fill­ing of time with songs. It got into vir­tu­ally ev­ery as­pect of life. At some point, we felt like we needed to present the texts in dif­fer­ent for­mats, in­clud­ing through mu­sic.

Do your projects with Kar­bido help you at­tract new au­di­ences? Who is your reader to­day? Is the im­age of your reader af­fect­ing your writ­ing?

— I don’t know about the new au­di­ence. I haven’t done any re­search of it. Peo­ple come up to me af­ter ev­ery con­cert to tell me that they have re­cently started read­ing my books. But I don’t know whether this could be mea­sured sta­tis­ti­cally.

I have no chances with the mass au­di­ence. I can’t ac­tu­ally pic­ture my mass reader. I get in­cen­tives from in­di­vid­ual read­ers who have their per­sonal in­di­vid­u­al­ity in my eyes. These are the peo­ple who have told me about how they changed their life un­der the in­flu­ence of my books. Some have quit their job and es­tab­lished rou­tine and went to In­dia where they spent sev­eral years in ashrams, even though this is not some­thing I pro­mote in my books. But these are per­sonal sto­ries, I know the names of these peo­ple and we stay in touch. It’s dif­fi­cult to say how many read­ers I have be­cause the au­di­ence is mul­ti­lay­ered. Most of my read­ers fol­low my pub­li­cist speeches or in­ter­views, so I’m not sure I can count them as

my read­ers. Some read my op-eds, and they are my read­ers. I have no idea how many peo­ple read my nov­els. Even fewer peo­ple prob­a­bly read my po­ems. I can’t pic­ture a struc­tured de­mand for my next piece and meet it by cal­cu­lat­ing what peo­ple ex­pect in ad­vance. I don’t think this is re­al­is­tic.

Do Ukrainian writ­ers lack pop­u­lar­ity abroad be­cause there is a lack of trans­la­tions? Or is it be­cause they are aes­thet­i­cally worse than their Euro­pean col­leagues?

— I think there is an ob­jec­tive rea­son for this: a se­ri­ous gap in the pro­mo­tion of the Ukrainian lan­guage. Many coun­tries have no trans­la­tors from Ukrainian. I think that’s the case of Swe­den, so it’s too early to talk about a No­bel Prize for us now. There are no good trans­la­tions from Ukrainian into Swedish; Ukrainian books are mostly trans­lated from other lan­guages there. Even places with suc­cess­ful projects, such as the Ger­man-speak­ing coun­tries or Poland, have a hand­ful of trans­la­tors from Ukrainian. Mean­while, the sup­ply in Ukraine is grow­ing as more in­ter­est­ing texts and au­thors ap­pear, but not the trans­la­tors. The peo­ple who have worked with the texts by Ser­hiy Zhadan, by me and other writ­ers, want to keep work­ing on our books. They have no phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity to trans­late five or six other au­thors from Ukraine, and we should do some­thing about it. I have said many times that the gov­ern­ment should set up schol­ar­ships for for­eign­ers, in­vite them to spend a year or so in Ukraine learn­ing Ukrainian. That’s how they could not just learn the lan­guage, but un­der­stand the men­tal­ity and the dif­fer­ent con­texts. All this is a must for trans­la­tors. We need to re­al­ize that cul­ture re­quires huge in­vest­ments. And they should be treated as in­vest­ments. We should not save on cul­ti­vat­ing and ed­u­cat­ing fu­ture trans­la­tors of Ukrainian lit­er­a­ture.

Your lat­est novel is ti­tled The Lovers of Jus­tice. On the one hand, it has the fa­mil­iar themes, mo­tives and texts that have seen the world al­ready – this has put off some read­ers. On the other hand, it has re­li­gious mo­tives that are not typ­i­cal for you – you men­tion them in just a few in­ter­views. Where does this re­li­gious side come from?

— I’m not in­ter­ested in sim­ply think­ing of a plot or build­ing a story with many spin-offs. What in­ter­ests me in a novel is an orig­i­nal twist, in­clud­ing in com­po­si­tion – so that peo­ple ques­tion whether this is even a novel. How­ever, if the read­ers have such doubts about The Lovers of Jus­tice, this sig­nals of a se­ri­ous gap in the read­er­ship mem­ory of Ukraini­ans. Even in the 1970s, the time of poor soviet Ukrainian lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, peo­ple re­al­ized that the genre of novel in the 20th cen­tury could mean any­thing. So they ac­cepted chimeric, mag­i­cal and other orig­i­nal nov­els. I have for­bid­den my­self to ad­just to any ex­pec­ta­tions of the read­ers. The most in­ter­est­ing thing for me is to cre­ate a new un­ex­pected struc­ture in a novel, to dis­cover some­thing within the genre if still pos­si­ble. So I may well in­sert a poem and a play into my next novel, with sev­eral sec­tions of tra­di­tional prose in be­tween them. I don’t like ba­nal­ity, so I don’t meet the read­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions.

You said that you have no chance of be­ing liked by the mass au­di­ence. This seems some­what too mod­est. Yuriy An­drukhovych is a well-known brand for many, and read­ers have a num­ber of ex­pec­ta­tions for you. Have you ever feared fall­ing hostage to your im­age?

— I don’t have a clear line of con­duct with a clear set of cer­tain prin­ci­ples. Some­times I think of whether to ex­press things in one way or an­other as it may af­fect ex­pec­ta­tions or per­cep­tions. But most of the time I don’t think about it. What I find more im­pact­ful is to ex­press an im­por­tant and well-for­mu­lated thought. I am one of those peo­ple who some­times ex­press an idea so that it goes on liv­ing, even if we re­al­ize that it may have un­pleas­ant con­se­quences. I don’t model my im­age to fit cer­tain au­di­ence.

The in­ter­twin­ing of cul­ture and pol­i­tics is a painful is­sue. Ukrainian film di­rec­tor Oleh Sentsov has been on a hunger strike for 120 days now [the in­ter­view was recorded on Septem­ber 10]. Vir­tu­ally all sen­si­ble artists have pub­licly sup­ported him, from film di­rec­tor Pe­dro Almod­ovar to the J. M. Coet­zee, the Noble Prize-win­ning writer. That has barely changed any­thing, as if cul­ture can do noth­ing when it comes to tyranny. Is that so?

— No, it’s not. But cul­ture of­ten has no lever­age of di­rect ac­tion. Those in power some­times feel free of pub­lic opin­ion. This is the case with dic­ta­tors, the coun­tries where free­dom of speech is blocked, and cen­sor­ship and per­se­cu­tion of dis­si­dents pre­vail. That’s where cul­ture can­not have di­rect in­flu­ence. Still, even then it pre­pares a time bomb for those in power. Ev­ery ac­tion is im­por­tant for the work with the fu­ture. By con­trast, cul­tural ini­tia­tives have di­rect ef­fect in demo­cratic so­ci­eties where those in power are greatly de­pen­dent on pub­lic opin­ion. If Sentsov was be­hind bars in a demo­cratic coun­try for some strange rea­son, a col­lec­tion of sig­na­tures would im­me­di­ately re­sult in his re­lease. In this case, we see not help­less­ness of cul­ture, but some­thing with de­ferred ef­fect. The tor­tur­ing of Sentsov will bury Putin even­tu­ally, he will fall vic­tim to his own ruth­less­ness.

You went on a tour in Eastern Ukraine this spring with The End­less Jour­ney, or Aeneid, a mul­ti­me­dia project which you call a col­lage lec­ture. You later said in in­ter­views that the au­di­ence came even from Stanyt­sia Luhan­ska, a front­line town. Is the Aeneid im­por­tant in the East? What ex­actly is a col­lage lec­ture?

— Our art group treated this as an en­light­en­ment project from day one. We wanted our work to be used by teach­ers in schools, pro­fes­sors in uni­ver­si­ties and stu­dents. A col­lage is an orig­i­nal ap­proach to de­liv­er­ing lec­tures, a frag­mented clip-like pre­sen­ta­tion of in­for­ma­tion that keeps the at­ten­tion of the au­di­ence. We had or­ga­ni­za­tional and fi­nan­cial sup­port ex­actly be­cause we per­formed in Eastern Ukraine – at uni­ver­si­ties, schools and mu­sic schools. A whole bus came to our per­for­mance in Severodonetsk from Stanyt­sia Luhan­ska – ArtPole group had al­ready con­ducted sev­eral art ini­tia­tives in Severodonetsk be­fore. They have es­tab­lished very friendly con­tacts with peo­ple from Stanyt­sia Luhan­ska, so they headed to The Aeneid, too. I was moved: peo­ple got up at 6 a.m. to watch the per­for­mance at 12 and head home af­ter it.

You have de­liv­ered lec­tures at the Slavic Lan­guage Stud­ies Depart­ment of the Hum­boldt Univer­sity in Ber­lin. Have you no­ticed any dif­fer­ence be­tween the young peo­ple from Ukraine and Ger­many?

— I had about 30% of Ger­mans in my course. Ed­u­ca­tion is in­ter­na­tional in the EU, so I had stu­dents from the for­mer Soviet Union coun­tries, Spain, Italy – they all stud­ied at Hum­boldt Univer­sity of Ber­lin. I can’t com­pare them to Ukrainian stu­dents be­cause I have no teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in Ukraine. What I can say, how­ever, is that all of the stu­dents in Ber­lin were very well pre­pared and mo­ti­vated. One of our ac­tiv­i­ties in class was to make up non-ex­ist­ing po­ets in classes, cre­ated their bi­ogra­phies and wrote po­etry on their be­half.

Who would you men­tion as strong writ­ers of the new gen­er­a­tion in Ukraine? Is there a con­flict of gen­er­a­tions in Ukrainian lit­er­a­ture?

— On the one hand, there seems to be no progress with­out a con­flict of gen­er­a­tions. But I think that I felt the ar­rival of the 90s much stronger, when ev­ery­one con­stantly said that the era of the 1980s’ writ­ers was over. Then, af­ter 2000, I felt no con­flicts. We seem to have de­vel­oped mu­tual re­spect over the years. What I can say about the youngest writ­ers is that some are send­ing their manuscripts to me. I know these writ­ers bet­ter than the pub­lished ones. I keep liv­ing and wait­ing for a text that will turn my world up­side down one day.

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