We don’t need a new Maidan - Andrey Kurkov
Bohdan Nahaylo talks to one of Ukraine’s top writers, Andrey Kurkov, on humour and irony as a medicine against depression
Hello and welcome to the first episode for 2018 of Hromadske Radio’s Ukraine Calling! We’ve changed our format. Now we’ll be bringing you a feature interview with Ukraine’s opinion makers, cultural movers and shakers, other interesting people, and the latest in new music from Ukraine. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo, and this week I have a great interview with one of Ukraine’s and Europe’s top writers, Andrey Kurkov, to share with you. And after that, a newly released song to start the New Year!
Nahaylo: This week I have great pleasure to have with me a celebrated writer from Ukraine, perhaps Ukraine’s best literary export of our times, Andrey Kurkov. His books are translated into numerous languages, and he has written not only novels, but books for children and film scripts. He is the only author from the former Soviet area whose books have appeared the best seller book lists in Europe. But he is exceptional not only because of his popularity in the outside world, but also because the civic position he takes, his principled stance, not extremely overt, but nevertheless in its discreet way an example of a writer pointing the way for the society in which he finds himself and which he describes. So Andrei, you’re very welcome to our program!
Kurkov: Thank you, Bohdane.
Nahaylo: Let’s begin by talking about your literary output. Personally, I have lost track of all the books you have published – novels, we are not going into essays and interviews.
Kurkov: I’ve published 21 novels. I did not publish my first four novels and will never publish them because they was just beginner’s texts. I also published some children books -about 11- and some children books are still in stock because I like illustrators to work on them. But generally that is my output.
Nahaylo: Is the best selling one, the best known, still the your first one you published – Смерть постороннего (2006), published in English in 2001 as Death and the Penguin.
Kurkov: It was first to be translated. It was definitely the most successful. It was followed by Penguin Lost, originally published in 2005 in Russian as Закон улитки, then The Penguin Novels. The President’s Last Love was very well received. And my recent English translation is one of my oldest novels, The Bickford Fuse, which got very good reviews in the Financial Times and Guardian.
Nahaylo: It is really exceptional for a writer in Ukraine. And. I emphasize that you are Russian-born. You are Russian by ethnicity, but I guess a Ukrainian now by adaptation, by choice and by spirit.
Kurkov: I always say that I am ethnic Russian, but a political Ukrainian. I grew up in Ukraine. My family moved to Kyiv when I was less than two years old. So it’s my country, it’s my city.
Nahaylo: You are a member of the political Ukrainian nation…
Nahaylo: …which I hope we are building together in these difficult days. Let’s now return to your early major works, especially Death and the Penguin. That was such an unusual theme and approach. How did it come to your head, the imagery that you use?
Kurkov: I think it was a result of very specific Soviet upbringing and my inborn optimism because I am still an optimist despite of all the problems the country is facing now. I had been writing these novels in 1995-96 when the situation in the country was quite grave. At the same time lots of writers were writing so-called black novels which were not giving hope or even a tiny spectre of hope. They were written by depressed people who hated the subject they wrote about, they hated the country they wrote about, and they hated their characters. I would never do the same. I was trying to describe the situation in the country, which was a difficult situation- but live in hope and not forget about humour, irony as some kind of medicine against depression .
Nahaylo: Your books are both satirical and surrealistic at the same time. For me at any rate. But by the time you got to The President’s Last Love – I do not know why- I saw shades of Latin American writers –Márquez, or even Vargas Llosa. Were you influenced by Latin American writers?
Kurkov: I’ve never thought I was influenced by them. I was actually influenced by, first an d foremost, Gogol, Bulgakov, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Kafka, Camus and Knut Hamsun.
Nahaylo: You had “hunger” for these things… [Hamsun’s most famous novel is called The Hunger)
Kurkov: Yes, exactly. I have never been crazy about Latin American literature. I like Borges but not more than that. Probably on subconscious level I could have been influenced by everything I read, of course.
Nahaylo: By who else have you been influenced by? You know English. Are you reading English authors as well?
Kurkov: I did. I read in English, French and also in Polish and German.
Nahaylo: A “Renaissance man” – born and bred in Soviet times!
Kurkov: When I wrote The President’s Last Love I tried to create a 3D picture of human life from the 1970s to the future and that future time for me was 2017. This is the year the novel ends and the novel was published in 2004.
Nahaylo: Amazing! Like for many of us was the case with1984. We could not but wait with trepidation for that year to come, and then it arrived. Now we are in 2017! How have your works developed? Has the range of your interests shifted more to any specific area? Are you choosy or ad hoc about what turns up?
Kurkov: I get impulses from life. For example, I have a novel which is called in English The Good Angel of Death or The Kind Angel of Death, and it was written in 1997 after many discussions with Ukrainian nationalists about the role of Ukrainian language in society and about the possible—or not possible—linguistic assimilation of the minorities of the country. The novel in its original is bilingual because there are characters that speak in Ukrainian, and characters that speak in Russian. My latest novel, which I have finished now but am still editing, is called The Grey Bees. It is about the grey zone, Donbas, and Crimea, and about today’s situation in Ukraine. So. of course. I am influenced by what has happened.
Nahaylo: You’re on the cutting edge. You’re staying up with current affairs and most burning issues.
Kurkov: This is a writer’s role. If he is not a science fiction writer, he has to be in reality. Writing a novel like this allows you to live in two realities at the same time: your personal reality—which can be detached from the world and can be detached from politics; and, your second reality, which you fill in with what you lack in your first reality.
Nahaylo: But how hard is it to be truly honest in writing about such sensitive subjects here in this context of Ukraine, yet having publishers that want to promote the book outside of Ukraine? How do you balance your honesty with what the market expects from you?
Kurkov: I had already a situation when I was writing a book, The Gardens of Mr Michurin, and knowing that this book will not be translated and will not have a lot of readers, but I needed to write it. So I’ve done it. Almost nobody knows about this novel, there was only one edition in Russian, and that’s all. So this time I’m not thinking about the publishers. I’m thinking about the situation I am describing, I am thinking about the local readers, and if the book will be taken on by publishers abroad I think it will also give them the information. The honesty is subjective. I am I’m trying to be objective in this. I went to the war zone two times, I know a lot of refugees, I talk to soldiers, I talk to people who don’t want to talk to anybody in Severodonetsk. Actually, the main character is like this. There is no fantasy there except for the plot, which I developed. It is slightly surreal sometimes, but very realistic, because everything that is described in the novel is possible.
Nahaylo: Where are your books most popular? Where are they selling best, or most read?
Kurkov: Well it is in German-speaking countries, French-speaking countries, in English translations, and in Japanese. And now, actually, I feel that I am more and more read in Italy and more in the Arab world. I have a new book in the Arab language in Egypt and I have been invited to Dubai in March for public events.
Nahaylo: And you must obviously give a lot of interviews and are asked for your comments here and there, so that probably cuts into your writing time. And you travel a lot!
Kurkov: It does. I travel 5-6 months a year and most of the interviews I give abroad are not about my books, but about Ukraine, the political situation, and the prospects of the relationship with Russia etc. So I became a sort of an expert on Ukraine after 2001 and the Gongadze case.
Nahaylo: Well you’ve become foremost a cultural emissary, but also a political commentator and observer. What is your typical working day when you’re not travelling? How many hours on a good day do you actually put into writing?
Kurkov: Well it depends whether I am at the beginning or the end of the novel, because when I am at the beginning of the novel, I spend more time thinking and making notes than writing, and then I can write for three or four hours. But when I am already in the process of writing the novel, the working day of writing can take up to 14 hours. When I was completing the novel The Gardener of Ochakov, I was writing 12-14 hours every day. Now I am writing about 5, 6, 7 hours if I am not travelling. If I am travelling, sometimes I will write the same amount of time, but I am writing on the planes, on the trains…
Nahaylo: Do you write on a laptop or are you writing in long-hand with a pen?
Kurkov: The text — the actual text — I write on a laptop, and the notes I take on a writing pad and, actually, sometimes when the battery is flat, I start writing notes by hand.
Nahaylo: Well, tell us a little bit about your own personal taste, of writers that you respect, read these days, who are among your favourites?
Kurkov: Among Ukrainian writers, probably Yurko Vynnychuk. I think for me, he is one of the biggest, most important novelists in Ukraine. I very much like novels by Maria Matios. If we are talking about foreign literature, I started reading more non-fiction than fiction, and for the last five years I’m following the works of Martin Pollock, an Austrian professor of history and writer, who discovered for me a different Ukraine, a different Galicia. The first book of his I read was called Kaiser from America. It’s the history of immigration from Bukovina and Galicia from the mid-19th century and it turned my understanding of this history upside down because it’s a completely different from what we used to believe. So, I am reading more and more of his books now, like The Last Train Journeys in Bukovina and Galicia (Nach Galizien Von Chassiden Huzulen Polen Und Ruthenen Eine Imaginare Reise Durch Die Verschwundene Welt Ostgalizien), the last book which was translated in Chernivtsi into Ukrainian.
Nahaylo: That’s one of the ironies and the tragedies for Ukrainians — their history had so many blank spots, and they’ve been trying to recover much of this cultural and historical identity, and yet the presence of the Jews, the Russians, was also blotted out, and only now, writers like Bruno Schultz are being re-discovered and translated, or others, and the Jewish heritage in Western Ukraine, particularly we’re talking about Chernivtsi and L’viv.
Kurkov: Exactly, and we are having new blank spots in Ukrainian literature now because the Crimean Tatar writers were and are ignored until today; there are no translations of their novels, or collections of their poetry. The Ukrainians recently got very angry with Hungarians [over their official criticism of Ukraine’s new education law with it positive affirmation as regards the Ukrainian language], but since 1991, no Hungarian-Ukrainian writer was translated into Ukrainian. Until 1991, they were always translated into Russian and Ukrainian. Now we have about 30-40 active writers living in the Ukrainian Transcarpathian region who are completely ignored, even in Uzhhorod, because when I took my friends, writers in Uzhhorod, to Berehove they were amazed to see a literary magazine in Hungarian written by Ukrainian citizens, Ukrainian writers. There are literary projects and there are many young writers who write in Hungarian, living in Ukraine, writing about their region, about Ukraine, helped by Hungarian mainland publishers or institutions, but helped like a smaller brother who cannot work properly.
Nahaylo: So, what you’re saying is that Ukrainians, as the majority nation here, should not simple be preoccupied with this victim image of themselves, but should also see in their role as the strongest ethnic group how they could help others and support them?
Kurkov: Yes, they should show that they are uniting minorities around themselves. Like the British Council, or other institutions, when they are brining their authors to Ukraine, for example: look at the ethnicity of these authors. One of the previous writers who was sent by Britain to Ukraine was Tobias Fischer, the Hungarian who moved to England 20 or 30 years ago and who is now an English writer, and they are proud to show him as an English writer. We should be proud to show our writers of non-Ukrainian ethnicity as Ukrainian writers.
Nahaylo: And you obviously set a very good example of this cultural tolerance in the sphere because as mentioned earlier you are from a Russian background — you are an ethnic Russia, yet you speak fluent Ukrainian. You do not distance yourself from Ukraine; in fact, you have become a leading representative of the modern tolerant Ukraine, this democratic Ukraine that we are building. Tell us a little bit about your role and involvement in the Ukrainian PEN Center?
Kurkov: Well, I am a vice president of the PEN. The president of the PEN is Mykola Riabchuk. We have about 30-40 active people and we managed this year to host the International Pen Congress, the first time actually on Ukraine’s territory, having received more than 150 delegates from lots of countries. And it was a success for which we have to pay now because everybody expects in international PEN that we will be one of the leading PEN centers in Central Europe.
Nahaylo: I am talking to Andrey Kurkov, the celebrated writer, resident in Ukraine and unfortunately perhaps even better known in the outside world than among Ukrainians. Though, we do have a growing reading public, particularly among the young people that are increasing more interested in reading your works and works in Ukrainian and in Russian. But the international PEN center [PEN, for those who maybe are not aware, is an international writers’ organization “Poets, Essayists, Novelists” to defend freedom of speech and writers, who find themselves in trouble with authorities].
Kurkov: Actually it is more like political literary organization which fights for human rights. And which fights actually for the writers and journalists who are persecuted, or who are in prisons. It is very influential, because we managed, as International PEN, to get freedom for Asli Erdogan, a Turkish writer who lives in Germany. When she came to Turkey she was arrested and even her passport was returned to her. We have this situation in many countries, which is very difficult and needs international attention.
Nahaylo: This is of great interest to me, because when I was still a student and postgraduate at the London School of Economics my first job was with Amnesty International. But I was very closely involved with PEN, the International PEN Centre when Mario Vargas Llosa was the President. And at that time it was a major achievement for us to get Stus, Svitlychny, Sverstiuk, Chornovil, Osadchy, other Ukrainian writers [Soviet political prisoners at that time] recognized by PEN. It meant a lot and it still does.
Kurkov: You know I was not a writer at all in 1988. I was not published, but I was invited to become a member of English PEN and my first English translation and publication was in a magazine closely aligned with Amnesty International, Index on Censorship.
Nahaylo: That is where I started. My first publication was about Ivan Svitlychny, I think, in 1980, and the second was about Ihor Kalynets in Index on Censorship. At that time, the late 1970s, George Theiner was the Deputy Editor, (he was a Czech), and Michael Scammel, who wrote the definitive biography of Solzhenitsyn, was the editor. Those were very interesting days. But we are coming to the end of our discussion. Andrey, what are you working on at present?
Kurkov: I am editing the new novel, which I mentioned already “The Grey Bees” about these grey zones – annexed Crimea and Donbas, and Ukraine. I am thinking about the next projects, which will be mostly projects organized together with PEN Ukraine and maybe PEN New York to help young Ukrainian writers to lead public discussions on any topic. I did two projects like this last year in the Transcarpathian and Odesa regions. We have involved about 25-30 young writers from all around Ukraine. We can repeat this in other areas of Ukraine, including also the Donbas, that is, the Ukrainian controlled territory of Donbas, and Bukovyna, and Slobozhanschyna.
Nahaylo: Two final questions from me. Which of your books, of your many books and novels are the most satisfactory for you? Which one do you feel is your best work? For you personally, not in term of sales.
Kurkov: Well, I mentioned already the Bickford Fuse, which was first self-published in 1993, but is now published in German, and in English. And among recent ones I’m very happy with the Schengen Story. It’s called Schengen Story, but in French and other languages it will probably be called Paris-London – Pienagalis because it’s about Lithuanians leaving for Europe, Western Europe, after Lithuania became a member of the European Union.
Nahaylo: Is it a sort of caveat emptor to those who see Europe as the great paradise that beckons?
Kurkov: Yes, it is. But it is a big novel, and it shows not only the situation in Lithuania, but also life in France, and life in England. So it’s a big European novel, about 800 pages, four plot lines, and bits of unknown Lithuanian history, and unknown European history.
Nahaylo: Andrey, everywhere you go you are asked to comment about the situation in Ukraine, so, inevitably, your take on what’s happening. In a few sentences, where do we stand? Here we are, a few years after the Revolution of Dignity, the Maidan, which you described. Are we moving forward? Are we stagnating? Are you hopeful? Are you pessimistic?
Kurkov: I’m hopeful. I’m a great optimist. I was a black optimist in 1993, when it was a really a bleak situation. I feel that the batteries are slightly flat in Ukrainian politics. And the movement towards reforms, towards reforming the country, has slowed down, and the government, the political elites, need a push. But we don’t need a new Maidan. We don’t need riots. We don’t need pogroms. They need a push, and they need to get into real political activity. Because what we have as political activity in the country is very often fake. We have 300 political parties but we don’t have daily political activities of ordinary members. We don’t have offices of parties, in the towns, cities, and villages. We have only so-called paid activists, who are active only before elections. So we have to change this system. Once we understand that every party has an ideology. If I’m a liberal then I want to join the liberal party and I want to be sure that the liberal party will defend liberal values. Then political society will become much more civilized. And we won’t have riots, Maidans, and pogroms, because there will be no place for them. If you are active, you can be active legally, politically, and in a civilized manner.
Nahaylo: And as a footnote, the following intrigues me. Your Russian colleagues and friends, in Russia and outside, how do they view you? They probably rate you very highly as a writer, but are they easy, comfortable, with your identification with Ukraine?
Kurkov: Such friends and colleagues — there are not many of them actually, with whom I keep in touch — they are on my side in both cases, my political statements, and my writing. I’m talking about Vladimir Sorokin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Boris Akunin, Tatiana Shcherbina, who lives in Moscow, and some others. But officially, for Russia I’m a traitor, and I’m a foreign writer. As I recently found out from an interview given by Dmitry Bykov in Kyiv, I’m “a French writer living in France, and not a Ukrainian writer.” So there are lots of myths. But my books are not available in Russia, so I don’t think anybody talks about me anymore, because I am not present there as a writer.
Nahaylo: You are present, and you will be present, for decades to come. I want to thank you, Andrei Kurkov, for agreeing to this interview, and to wish you all the very best.
Kurkov: Thank you very much.
Piano. It’s a musical instrument. A musical term for soft. And the name of a musical group in L’viv. The L’viv Piano just released a single from their upcoming album and it premiered on Hromadske Radio’s morning show this week. Thought you might enjoy it. It’s called Ніжність, which means Tenderness.
Tune in next week for a new episode, and let us know what you think about the new format on [email protected] I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening and Veslykh Svyat I Schaslyvoho Novoho Roku – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! from our team.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, and Ilona Sviezhentseva. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.