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1 August, 2011  ▪  Записала: Iryna Troskot

Observations of the King of Mystification

Writer Yuriy Vynnychuk talks about the search for new symbols, the literary famine and writers caught up in politics

Yuriy Vynnychuk stands out in Ukrainian literature. He is a poet, a writer, a translator, the complier of many anthologies, a creator of endless literatary provocations, games and tricks, and a respected intellectual. His friends call him “Chemodan” - Suitcase for the amazing amount of information he keeps in his head.

Back when I was involved in mystification (hoaxes), I was trying to slap the then system. It was my form of protest. Firstly, I made fools of the editors sitting in the publications. Secondly, I was having fun. Some high-ranking officials fell for my mystifications. My translations are mentioned in the “Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Literature” and have been used as a basis for research papers. Thirdly, I published my own poems under the guise of translations because I wouldn’t have been able to publish them otherwise. They were neither optimistic, nor did they mirror the revolutionary spirit of the Soviet Union.

The novelLife in a Harem was written in the form of the supposedly found diary of Roxelana with my foreword about the unprecedented discovery was written to order.Oleksandr Kryvenko, who was the Editor-in-Chief of the Post-Postup publication between 1991 and 1995, asked me to set up some kind of a scandal on the columns of his publication. My goal was not only to draw attention to the newspaper, but also to stir the rotten swamp which developed within us - with praying to various icons that often hardly deserved it. Roxelana is a total myth! She never represented herself as a Ukrainian, let alone a Christian, because for example, it would not occur to a single Turkish sultan to tax pilgrims to the Tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem - but she did. Anyway, France has its symbol of a woman in Joan of Arc, the knight lady, as a symbol, while we have a geisha… I think we need to look for charismatic personages. Every time a different goal or reason shaped yet another mystification. But I’ve called a halt to this now. I’m not interested any longer.   

We often say that we never attacked anyone.This is low self-esteem. Firstof all, this is a lie. Secondly, what is there to brag about? There is not a single successful nation that hasn’t done this. You are either successful and you attack others, or you are a complete loser. Prince Oleh did not go to Constantinople on a tourist visa, he went there to fight. All our campaigns against Poland and Lithuania had the same purpose. So this fabrication that Ukrainians have never been prone to aggression is also bad in the way that it shapes a nation which has nothing to feel proud of. It’s as if all we did was tilled the land and gathered the grain harvest.   

I don’t write poems any more, but I have published them all.I’ve been writing prose since childhood and never stopped. I am currently writing a novel and a story, at the same time. Having said this, for some reason, writers don’t like short stories, and a lot of young people make their debut with massive genres. In fact, they should start with short stories. I don’t have this mania of labeling stories as novels. I always say that my Night Maidens is a story, but they still hail it as a novel.

I write that, which I would like to read myself.I love to read Jean Genet but I skip the parts focusing on homosexuality. I don’t think I could ever write something like that. And I don’t go into great detail the way Oksana Zabuzhko does, describing who, what,where, when and why. For instance, Marcel Proust penned erotic scenes too, but it was totally different! The Night Maidens is considered to be an erotic story but it doesn’t have a single description of a sexual encounter. It has prostitutes but no details about what they do. In other prose, all of this is recorded as a parody. Malva Landa is all about fantasies. Erotic episodes in Spring Games in Fall Gardens are funny rather that serious. Moreover, they are all based on imagination and fantasies; they are all about what a person thinks and imagines at a certain point in time. I don’t think sex should be portrayed literally and in physiological detail.

I like to reveal things that are unknown to the readers.I have compiled an anthology of Ukrainian fairy tales and three volumes of Ukrainian gothic writing. Right now I’m working on the fourth. In addition, I’ve prepared a thick book called Who The Hell Knows? dedicated to the devil. In school, we were taught that classical Ukrainian writers only used to lament the hard life of workers. Later, I discovered that this was not true – they also wrote a lot about devils. I’m working on the next anthology about demons – this one is about Ukrainian witches. I’m planning to publish two volumes and I have much more information. Ukrainian demons and witches are all very good. The scariest image of the devil is in medieval writings from authors who talked to him often, while the writers of the 20th century made him look funny. The same thing can be said about our witches. Plus, they are very erotic figures in Ukrainian literature and are often involved in exiting adventures. Also, I’m working on two volumes of an anthology of poets who were violently killed during wars and repressions. I already have collected almost 300 names.

Compiling anthologies is a hassle. As you can see, nobody wants to do it. I find texts in old newspapers and magazines and that’s exciting. My greatest pleasure is when I find an unknown author or a text that has never been seen before.

We have beautiful poetry but not a lot of good prose.I can’t even think who to mention right now. I read Sophia Andrukhovych and Tania Maliarchuk, both young writers, and Kostia Moskalets, Halyna Pahutiak,Volodymyr Dibrova and Oleh Lysheha from the older generation. But in general… Actually, I look at new Ukrainian books, leaf through them, but often see that there is no point in reading them, so I put them aside. I’m more interested in modern foreign literature. I get Czech and Polish literatary magazines, similar to the Ukrainian Vsesvit (The Universe), but they are much better. Once a writer is awarded a Nobel prize, Literatura na świecie (Literature in the World) dedicates an entire thick issue to him or her, including bios, interviews, excerpts from his works and so on. 

In Soviet times, we all used to read in Slavic languages and find books published in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. They were openly sold at the Druzhba (Friendship) bookstore. We could also subscribe to magazines that published foreign literature. I first read all Latin American writers, as well as Marcel Proust, Umberto Eco and Samuel Beckett, in Polish.   

The young writers of today don’t read a lot of Ukrainian classical literature.I remember Hrytsko Chubai and myself copying poems by Volodymyr Svidzinsky, Yuriy Lypa and Yuriy Tarnavsky by hand and lending them to one another. I don’t see the same appetite for good books these days. Several years ago Ihor Kostetsky published his work. He is a phenomenal writer, and his books are still being sold. So, there are very few writers whom I could talk to about literature.

As for the Taras Shevchenko Literary Award for Vasyl Shkliar’snovel, Chorniy Voron (The Black Raven), I must say that no prominent international literary award, be it the Goncourt , Pulitzer, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, or the Nobel Prize, has ever been granted for belles-lettres.Vasyl Shkliar’s novels, Solodka Darusia (Sweet Darusia)by Maria Matios or Zapysky Ukrainskoho Samashedshoho (The Notes of a Ukrainian Madman)by Lina Kostenko are works for the people and it’s great that they exist. But something that a farmer or a bus driver can understand easily does not qualify as high-quality literature. Still, popular works must exist in all literature, moreover in large numbers. The fact that people rushed to buy these books is wonderful - in this case the scandal was a positive thing. If not for this, Vasyl Shkliar’s books would not have been bought up. Roman Horlis-Horsky wrote a novel called Kholodny Yar which is no worse than The Black Raven. Moreover, the book was written by a participant of the liberation struggle of 1922. However, the book is not enjoying the same level of popularity .   

Writers involved in politics are a reflection of an underdeveloped nation and distorted society.It’s no good when writers stick their noses into politics. At most, they can advise. We don’t know any writers or members of parliament that we can be proud of. Once they receive their mandate, they cease to be writers. What have Ivan Drach, Dmytro Pavlychko, Petro Osadchuk and others written in the past 20 years? Nothing! All they write is satirical pamphlets. Roman Ivanychuk publishes some endless novels that are no different that do not differ from regular journalism. I have the impression, that once a writer steps into politics, he or she is immediately infected with graphomania. Writers-MPs who had played the role of leaders in the late 80s have now shown what they really are. It’s always a tragedy when people throw themselves from pen to politics. By the way, all post-colonial countries have experienced similar trends. Writers became the first presidents of most of these countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic and several others. Slovenians went so far as to demand that a writer heads their National Bank. I can only imagine what this could have led to, but fortunately, this did not come to pass.

BIO

Yuriy Vynnychuk was born in Ivano-Frankivsk on 18 March 1952. He graduated from the Vasyl Stefanyk Prykarpattia University. He has lived in Lviv since 1974. During the period 1987-1990, Mr. Vynnychuk was employed as the director of the Lviv Variety Theater, also writing songs and scripts. In 1991, be became an editor of the Post-Postup newspaper, being promoted to Editor-in-Chief in 2006. He has written close to 30 books, which have been published in Ukraine and abroad, translated works by Stefan Grabinski and Bohumil Hrabal, and compiled numerous anthologies. In 1999, Mr. Vynnychuk was decorated the Knight of Halychyna title for his weekly column of Yuzio Observator (Yuzio the Observer) in Post-Postup.

Selected books

Lehendy Lvova (The Legends of Lviv), a guide on local culture - six editions

Vikna Zastyhloho Chasu (The Windows of Time Stood Still), prose

Tayemnytsi Lvivskoyi Kavy(The Secrets of Lviv Coffee), a book on the local culture

Mistse dlya Drakona(A Place for a Dragon), prose

Malva Landa, a novel

Hrushi v Tisti(Pears Wrapped in Pastry), short stories


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