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8 July, 2011  ▪  Roman Horbyk

Widely Known in Narrow Circles

In Germany, like in Ukraine, Ukrainian literature is learning the ropes of gaining an audience

In the past decade, fans of contemporary Ukrainian literature got the impression that of all Western European markets Germany has the most interest in our authors. Ukrainian readers often gather from interviews and articles that Yuriy Andrukhovych, Serhiy Zhadan or even Liubko Deresh are acknowledged figures and moral authorities for the local German public.

What, though, is the real situation? A search on Amazon reveals that even though Andrukhovych can easily be found also in English and French (at a prohibitive €50 a book) and Deresh is available in French (at the same price), the assortment of German translations is indeed greater. At present, almost every work by Zhadan and the last novel by Oksana Zabuzhko are available in German. True, in no other country are Ukrainian authors translated as much as in Germany. Hence they are invited to attend literary festivals and go on promotional tours organized by publishers. But this interest is focused on just a few contemporary authors, and the availability of their books seems to be limited to internet bookstores and festival sales.


A search in the Hamburg branch of Thalia, one of the biggest bookstore networks in Germany, reveals zero Ukrainian books in German. However, a collection of Andrukhovych’s essays, Twelve Rings, can be obtained by mail order, a staff member tells me. This option is not available for other Ukrainian authors, even though their works can be purchased online from this bookstore.

Could the marketing policies of a commercial network be distorting the overall picture? The top 10 foreign bestsellers in Thalia are exclusively new and heavily promoted American books, the winners of prestigious awards or obvious mass literature. I proceed to a student bookstore, Heinrich Heine, located next to the university campus. Here the situation is indeed better: the staff immediately recognizes the names of several writers and offers to immediately place an order. However, there were no paperbacks to hold in my hands in this large bookstore which must, it would seem, enjoy considerable demand from students of Slavic languages and literature and simply anyone interested in Ukrainian literature.

I repeated the experiment 450 km away from Hamburg, in Bonn — a totally different part of the country — with pretty much the same results. Thalia again offered a make a mail order and Bouvier, another large bookstore, did as well. This is not surprising, considering that both networks have the same supplier. In Witsch & Behrendt, an independent bookstore that is popular among students, I almost had luck: a salesman recognized Andrukhovych’s name and even pointed to a shelf where his books once used to sit. Now, however, they can only be ordered by mail, just like other translations from Ukrainian.
In the nine months that I spent in Germany, I did not see any edition of a Ukrainian book in “flesh and blood.”


Suhrkamp, which publishes most Ukrainian authors in Germany, says Ukrainians should not complain. “It is not a question of popularity. Fourteen years ago, Ukrainian literature was not represented on the German market. The difficult situation in bookstores may be linked to the flow of new books,” editor Katharina Raabe says. “We have huge production volumes, so it is about a lack of space, because shelves in bookstores are filled with the newest books. We recently published Serhiy Zhadan’s Big Mac, and it should be available.”

Does the publishing house arrange for sufficient book promotion? “If authors speak German, we arrange tours for them and joint discussions on cultural, political, geopolitical and ‘geopoetical’ topics with organizations that support Eastern Europe,” Raabe continues. “For example, the large political Friedrich Ebert Foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany helps Ukrainian authors to speak to German audiences. Our book promotion is a kind of cross between typical literary soirées or book launches in the festival format and music concerts. Political context plays a large role in helping these authors gain popularity. Dramatic political processes are taking place in Ukraine, and it is from writers like them that the public wants to find an evaluation and explanation of the situation in their countries. Moreover, we have experience cooperating with critics and explaining the local nuances to them.”

Raabe shares the secret of how a foreign book can hit it big with the German audience. “It has to have not only literary value but also something the reader does not yet know from French or German authors. There has to be also something transnational in it. If a book contains too much regionalism, for example, language that is too complex or filled with too many local idioms, all of this will, of course, be lost in translation.”

Ukrainian writers do not stand comparison with the Slavic literatures that are more popular in Germany. These include, above all, classic Russian literature and young Polish literature, which is catching up due to European integration and Russia’s absence from the process. Nevertheless, Raabe believes that Ukraine has made a bit of a breakthrough on the German market: “The ‘Ukrainian wave’ reached its peak in 2004–2005 during and after the Orange Revolution, even though these authors had been known in Suhrkamp prior to that. The emergence of young talented translators was a contributing factor. So, Ukrainian literature scored disproportionately rapid and great success. At the same time, I cannot say that the popularity of these authors extended beyond a narrow circle.”


However, we should not give way to despair. There is growing awareness in Germany that Ukrainian literature and culture in general are independent, says Robert Hodel, Professor of Slavic studies at Hamburg University. In his opinion, this fits with the tendency to popularize works from Southeast Europe. “I see that topics about periphery and migration are growing in popularity in Germany. Demand is growing for books about what motherland, roots and native language are. These topics are found in the writings of many authors, especially from the Balkans, for example, David Albahari, Aleksandar Hemon and Dubravka Ugrešić. Increasingly important to the young public is the question of what a national language is and its place in the contemporary world (against the background of English this problem is also a concern for Germans). Young people are also acutely interested in the question of what Europe in general is.”

Hodel speaks about significant interest primarily in Polish and Balkan literature among German readers. Most popular are writers who emerged against the backdrop of national conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. “As far as Polish literature is concerned, there is a very interesting phenomenon there,” the professor says. “They used to translate books linked to the Cold War, which, in principle, supported political changes in Poland, while now topics have emerged that pertain to what they call in Polish kresy. The best known of these authors is Andrzej Stasiuk. Zygmunt Haupt, a representative of the older generation, was also translated fairly recently. This phenomenon is closely linked to Ukrainian literature and the experience of Poles and Ukrainians living side by side in Galicia. I believe that Andrukhovych largely fits into this phenomenon, which also fuels interest in Deresh and Zhadan.

“Bulgarian literature has an interesting parallel to the above Ukrainian authors in Georgi Gospodinov. On the one hand, all of them – Stasiuk, Gospodinov and Andrukhovych – have a very peculiar attitude with respect to the Western world, but they are not nationalists. In other words, they write from the standpoint of the globalized and urbanized man. On the other hand, they also have some very attractive local things that appear quite exotic to the West. They portray a kind of authenticity of life and a very critical perception of the Western civilization, but not because they remain communists. In their criticism these writers are more likely to find agreement with our radical students or green parties.

“This kind of literature is popular precisely because it is local, but without the context of ‘blood and nation.’ For example, Stasiuk writes about the history of the Ukrainian people in Poland and the events that took place after the Second World War, while [Olga] Tokarczuk depicts the history of Polish Germans. What we have are globalized topics with local coloring. This is similar to what Serbian-Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica does – using absolutely contemporary methods and working on the highest level of his craft, he is nonetheless immersed in some totally local things. There is a reason why the Romani Boban Marković Orchestra is so popular in Germany now. It plays popular and, at the same time, highly spiritual music.” Hodel said he believes that interest in Balkan and, more widely, East European music and cinema shows that literature which is still largely unknown is emerging from these regions.

“Classics like Lesia Ukrainka or Ivan Franko are also present in Germany, even though they are known in narrow reading circles. Vasyl Symonenko, whom I personally like, could become popular. His poems are beautiful and should be translated,” he adds.


The problem of translation is of paramount importance. Professor Hodel notes that even though Ukrainian authors are usually fortunate to have good translators, the character of many works is lost in translation. “When you read them [in translation], you see a different style, a different language. I believe that if the state has an interest in promoting an author, it has to take care that translators receive adequate pay. They are forced to work under very tight deadlines and are not paid much, so they do all they can, but oftentimes the end product is not that great. The level of translations has improved recently; there is now an awareness of how important they are. 

In my opinion, the market, especially if we are talking about fiction, is unable to bring the best texts to the readers. An example to follow here is Poland which does a lot to popularize its literature in Germany through its Book Institute and consulate. Slovenians have recently actively started, with great results, to promote their culture. The state may have no demand for the leading contemporary authors, because they are neither nationalist nor internationalists and thus are hard to use for political ends. But I believe that the task of the government and cultural figures is to let the widest possible reading circles learn about these writers.” The European Union recently started allocating funds for translations from Slavic literature.

Here is another interesting point: Ukrainian cultural policy, or rather the lack thereof, is virtually the same as the indifference of contemporary Russia to popularizing its culture abroad. However, Germans are much better acquainted with Russian literature. “I don’t see any institutions promoting contemporary Russian authors. There hasn’t been any until now, especially if we talk about writers like Viktor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Their literature remains very popular in Germany, so we need to distinguish between so-called world literature – Russian classics – and translations of new authors. What they are translating now are books that are significant in Russia itself.”

Success on the domestic market is a key factor to getting published abroad. However, there are authors that did not enjoy recognition at home but made a name for themselves in foreign countries, for example Ugrešić, Hemon or Bosnian Dževad Karahasan.

“Literature is a politicized field,” Hodel says in reference to the political factor in the popularity of a writer. “Political discourse is undoubtedly present there. Of course, there is always the question: Who will stay? However, there are at all times things of current relevance. I am not speaking about quality; that is a different topic. But sometimes it is very hard to classify prevailing discourses in contemporary literature, and then we understand what is taking place in it post factum.”

The state of Ukrainian literature seems to be clear. It is represented in Germany and is available to German readers. Nevertheless, in order to access it, they need to show interest, be active and exert some effort, which is something average readers rarely do. In other words, there is no commercial promotion of Ukrainian writers. They are not being “imposed” on readers via bestseller lists and attractive shop windows. This fact predetermines their audience, which consists primarily of students and people already interested in Ukraine. The situation mirrors that in Ukraine and may be seen as disproving a widespread myth that literature can be popular abroad without being central to its own country. In their social function writers, as we can see, are totally dependent on politics. The place of Ukrainian literature in Europe reflects the character of our country’s progress in European integration: it is there, but it is hard to see with the naked eye.

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