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”
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.