Yuriy Andrukhovych: “I don’t like banality, so I don’t meet the readers’ expectations”
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 Trzaskaby 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.
So Karbido is something like a ship of Theseus?
— Exactly. The band members change to fit ideas, instruments and types of projects. For the Lithography project this is not a Polish band, but a Polish-Ukrainian or a Ukrainian-Polish one.
Have the tensions between Ukraine and Poland affected your work with Karbido?
— Polish government organizations have funded our current tour, which I personally did not expect. I thought that they would reject us given the changes that began in 2015. But the funding decision was made by the people who probably sympathize with us despite even their continued work in government bodies. We should not generalize the situation, saying that everything is so horrible and getting worse. There are some joint accomplishments between us and these are difficult to stop abruptly. But I don’t think that a Polish tour of Lithography would be possible today, even though we used to tour both Ukraine and Poland with our new albums through 2015.
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.
In terms of its symbolism, is Lithography close to your other project, Eight Ex-Synagogues? Is this about reviving the forgotten space?
— Of course. Although Eight Ex-Synagogues were created far earlier, back in 2014.
Popular Ukrainian writers, including Serhiy Zhadan, yourself and Irena Karpa, are making their music projects and working with ready-made 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-n-roll 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.
Can a writer of your scale live on writing alone? Or is like with musicians: they may be selling some CDs but mostly live on concert? Especially that this is your fifth album with Karbido.
— I would definitely not survive on revenues from books alone. I don’t think any writer in Ukraine lives on books only. I visited the Vilenica International Literary Festival in Slovenia just three days ago. All authors could attend the Writing and Surviving roundtable there. We discussed your question on the European and global scale – some of the writers were from Canada. All of the speakers said that writers cannot survive on book sales alone. They also said that societies accumulate social capital, so the more civilized and democratic the society, the greater the capital. It enables writers to sustain a stable level of income from their activity despite even unimpressive sales. This income includes revenues from book selling, as well as public speeches, participation in festivals, pretty well-paid individual readings and appearances in the media. These activities are not literary work but they are linked to the writer’s status in one way or another. Another important factor is literary awards and fellowships for writers, including the young ones aged up to 40 or 45. Of course, festival participants were concerned that this time is coming to an end, the period of liberal politicians in power is expiring while populists will cut down on such programs. Social capital will thus only remain the field for civil society while the commitment of government and public entities in the shaping of it will be fading.
We may be partying with the era that began in Ancient Greece. Do you know the origin of the word parasite? It’s a person of art, quite literally “a person eating from someone else’s table”. In Ancient Greece, the entire art communes appeared around wealthy households where they found shelter. Actors, clowns and poets were “parasitizing” on these households in a good sense. The humanity is probably partying with that epoch now. Life will not always be as good as it has been up until now.
You have mentioned literary awards. You have quite a few, including the 2014 Hannah Arendt Prize, the 2016 Goethe Medal and the 2017 Vilenica Prize. Do prizes affect the interest and demand for your books abroad?
— Yes, of course. Popularization is one of the goals of these prizes. Probably the most important of my awards was the 2006 Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding. It is given at the Leipzig Book Fair where the German translation of my novel Twelve Circles was presented. In fact, the translation was one year old by that time; it had been done in 2005. The book was often discussed in literary and other magazines that year, but nowhere was the interest for it as huge as it was at the fair. The prize was the final chord. After the prize, Twelve Circles was literally swept away from the publisher’s stands, and I had endless autograph sessions. So prizes have a very direct absolute impact on books.
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.
Is anybody interested in the topic of Ukraine today? Would translators want to go to Ukraine which many see as Eastern European borderland?
— A lot of people would actually love to come to Ukraine. Some are now doing so at their expense. They spend weeks traveling and looking for contacts. If this is put on a serious organizational framework, there will be dozens more of such people.
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.
The stories in The Lovers of Justiceare very different. You move from simpler playful texts to more complex and interesting ones. Was this the structure you intended to make? Or was it an improvised one?
— I did this intentionally. I had four texts initially which I had seen as stories up until a certain point, although I did envisage them under one cover in the future. They were written within extensive timeframe, reflecting different stages of my evolution as a writer, and of my capacity to describe nuances and details on a deeper level. For example, the opening story Samiylo Nemyrych is a joke, a mystification, light and superficial written in some three and a half hours. The other sections took me months, even half a year to complete. This evolution in the middle of a text speaks of the evolution of the author. The decision to make The Lovers of Justice into a novel, not a collection of stories, came in 2013. This would be an unusual, strange novel which people would perceive as a collection of stories, although my concept of it as the author was of a novel.
The characters of your texts and your generation are often artists or people close to the world of art. As far as I understand, writers always portray themselves in their first pieces. So there is a clear autobiographic root in this. How about your later characters? Why are you afraid to walk away from the usual novel scheme?
— I think this is a narrow professional interpretation. It is justified. But I view every individual as an artist. Whoever we write about, we write about artists. It’s just that sometimes they have other occupations which are not that important after all. What matters is that the narrator is essentially an artist. The Lovers of Justice were, among other things, my attempt to write about non-artists. Nemyrych does write sonnets, but he is a bandit. Vyrozemsky is a circus performer, but also a fraudster. Sansara is a reader of books, an athlete rather than an artist.
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.
Despite this need to express your thoughts, you remain one of the few Ukrainian writers with no Facebook account. Don’t you think that social media are an in important social platform? Or are you afraid that a phrase or a post can be interpreted against you?
— Sometimes I wish I had a social media account because I have a specific need to inform as many people as possible about an upcoming event [Andrukhovych is talking about the Ukrainian tour with the Lithography album – Ed.] Still, social media would take a huge amount of effort and time, and the latter I don't have enough. There is no great idea behind me not having a Facebook account. I’m not trying to say that social media are harmful and I want nothing to do with them. I don’t write much without them. With an account, I would write even less, and would chat with endless friends instead. It’s enough for me that emails take several hours a day.
Do you reply to your readers’ emails about your texts?
— Yes, absolutely. I have developed a reflex: I must reply to unread emails if I have any in my box.
The audience in Ukraine demands that every visible writer is also an expert in politics, diplomacy, economics and virtually all other spheres of life. Writers are asked about recipes for building a European country, for voting in elections and for overcoming the economic crisis. We often forget that writers are not experts with extensive expertise, not Renaissance scholars and not even moral authorities of humanity. They are people who know literature well, first and foremost.
— Even knowing literature is not a must. Many writers don’t really know it well, but they write well. What do I think about it? It’s not something originally Ukrainian. It’s a global trend. Just a few days ago, I was talking to my colleague, a Spanish poet. She explained this phenomenon very well: “Unlike real experts who speak cautiously and boringly, we express ourselves brightly, through metaphors. The media need that.” Journalists like to ask us because the way we formulate things attracts attention to publications. We give them metaphoric Zen-like flashes. News is about the information market where pieces should be delivered in the most efficient way. So, there should be someone surprising and unmanageable among all the others, who will say something weird.
Do you like the role of such an expert?
— It depends on the topic. If I were asked about my thoughts on abortions, I would be lost because this is a topic of many aspects. When I’m asked about football or justice where I feel or understand something, I eagerly reply. Since I’m not on social media, people don’t ask me that often lately. No matter what, social media create a constant context for newsmakers – they can extract comments from writers’ personal accounts. So I’m the last one to be reached by journalists on the phone.
Pabulum publishing house has recently presenteвd Vorokhtarium, your book with Oleksandr Boichenko and Orest Drul. It was remarkable for me to see a joint text by the artists united by a shared space – the Carpathian space in this case. Was it difficult for you to work in a team? How much of your text did your colleagues cut or change?
— It was a great idea to invite the three of us to the Carpathians rather than organize us to work in Lviv or Kyiv. First, we recorded our thoughts. Then people at the publishing house made transcripts and each of us worked on our respective parts, changing ourselves and cutting our texts. We decided to remove some paragraphs after a joint discussion. First of all, we wanted to avoid overloading the book with issues that were too detached from literature – such as current politics, even if took over some of our conversations. Still, I’m happy that we managed to keep it around literature.
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 – Auth.). 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 directaction. 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 translate a lot of literature, from Shakespeare to Bruno Schulz. Could you talk about your experience in translation?
— I prefer to say that I’m not a translator. Translators work systematically every day. I’m just a selfish person who takes up translations when I’m extremely interested in them. It’s a sort of addition to my personal creative path. I translate pieces that offer interesting linguistic and stylistic challenges – Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and three plays by Shakespeare (I have translated Twelfth Night, it’s currently playing in theaters). At one point, I had translated an anthology of American poetry. But when I’m asked to take something, such as Nabokov’s Lolita, I don’t. I do not want to become a full-time translator.
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.