“Ukrainian book readers are some sort of a caste”: An Interview with Yuri Andrukhovych

Yuri Andrukhovych (1960) is a famous Ukrainian writer of prose and poetry, essayist, translator, one of the most important figures of contemporary Ukrainian literature. He is the author of sixteen books, which have been translated into twenty languages. His works ‘Recreations’, ‘Perverzion’, ‘The Moskoviad’, ‘Twelve Circles’, ‘My Final Territory: Selected Essays’ and ‘Songs for a Dead Rooster’ have been translated into English. Yuri Andrukhovych is a laureate of numerous national and international prizes, including the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize (2005), the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for European Understanding (2006), the Angelus Central European Literature Award (2006), the Hannah Arendt Prize (2014), the Goethe Medal (2016) and Vilenica International Literary Award (2017). He is a translator of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ into Ukrainian. He is also a translator and compiler of the anthology ‘День смерті пані День’ (Eng. ‘The Day Lady Died’) which comprised American poetry of the Beat Generation, New York and Black Mountain Schools.

 Once you read his works, you will not be able to stop and may even decide to study Ukrainian, because it is hard to find such a language virtuoso among contemporary writers who can convert every text into a melody and make magic even when he is not writing in the style of magical realism. He thinks over each word and does not rush to give answers to the questions, so we conducted this interview via email and allowed ourselves a little bit of familiarity so that you could get acquainted with Yuri Andrukhovych more closely. And since writers exist to be read, the topic of this interview is reading itself.

In your opinion, are people waiting for some sort of a new ‘evolutionary stage’ which will transform the way we read today into some new reading practice? And will the common contemporary way of reading be considered a fetish or “classic”, like using a horse as a chief mode of locomotion between cities?

I do not have a sole idea about it. Sometimes it looks like everything is really turning for the worse and writing literary works can lose its value. But occasionally it seems that we are doing quite well instead. Here in Ukraine the book market is growing. Anyone who once visited a bookstore of a more or less good quality cannot but notice it. Such a generous book supply with such a variety of types and topics, such a number of translations has never occurred before in our country. Common sense suggests that when there is such an increase in supply, there must be an increase in demand as well, otherwise business does not make any sense. It is quite possible though that in view of the stagnation we had and a great backwardness from the countries with developed book markets, we still pick up steam in Ukraine, while in other countries this process is slowing down. Due to the growing number of people spending their lives on social networks, time (and space) for classical reading cannot but shorten. Yet I still hope that we will not cross any critical line. Just as much as I hope that the attachment of homo sapiens to the book is much stronger than his attachment to the horse.

Don't you think that money and commercialization placed books onto some stamping conveyor belt and that it led to a decrease in books’ quality and value? Does it make sense to cheer about supply and demand if people perceive literature as yet another way to feel emotions they lack in their everyday life?

I will start with the second question, because it is quite symptomatic in the context of what Bohdan Ihor Antonych once (it was in the 1930's) formulated as the purpose of art: to provide us with feelings which we cannot experience in reality. Therefore, if people do perceive literature as you see it, then they only follow Antonych's approach. I will also add from myself that, I believe this is not the worst option either. 

As for the conveyor belt and stamping. The latter word relates by definition to everything that is printed and replicated. A stamp is first and foremost an imprint, in our case — a typesetting imprint. So it all goes back to Gutenberg and his first printed matters. While the books were handwritten, they were not endangered by any conveyor or stamping. But thank God the book conveyors exist for as good as six-hundred years now. The commercialization of a book means neither anything good nor anything bad — it is simply an inevitable consequence of the fact that a book once became a commodity and a product more or less accessible to the public since the time of the Enlightenment.

Apparently, we have somehow focused too much on the production and economic component, don't you think?

That is because I have recently noticed that we pay too little attention to how the economic component affects the quality of literature and the quality of reading correspondingly. Do you suppose that these things cannot be interrelated and we should not get distracted? 

They can be interconnected, but not necessarily have to. They are quite tightly linked in the American market, whereas in Germany things are not that clear-cut. After all, I have never dreamt of a marketing career.

And how do you read? I mean, do you read books in one sitting? What do your personal reader crises (periods of non-reading) look like? And how in general did this process of reading evolve in your life?

I have been reading, as you know, for quite a long time now — some fifty-three years already. So it would be hardly possible to recall and retell all the nuances from different periods. As a child, I did use to read, as you say, in one sitting. Perhaps, the number of books I read throughout my childhood surpasses all later periods in quantity. When I was a student, I read less but had a very purposeful selection. Sometimes it was necessary to read quite fast, because there was the line of my dorm mates for those books. Sometimes I had to read aloud for a whole group of friends. When during my military service I was sent to the hospital to spend two months there, I also read plenty of books. I read a lot at the literary courses in Moscow. There I went deep into non-fiction — philosophical, cultural, academic, historical and a whole bunch of other special works.

Sometime later I slowed down a little, and this probably meant what you called crisis. The truth is, I did not have periods of total non-reading. But there were times (and quite often) when I read terribly slowly (and therefore little) and for the most part did not finish what I read. Not because of the disappointment, but simply owing to the feeling that although that literary work was written perfectly, it just had nothing to enrich me with.

Nowadays I read relatively a lot and I suspect that the reason for it is my tablet. I read much while traveling, I load a few books ahead of every trip and try to finish them by the end of the journey.

And how did you manage to switch to electronic book? There are some myths that it affects the quality of reading, etc. 

Nothing can influence the quality of my reading anymore.

Do you consider biased attitude to electronic books a snobbery?

No, I doubt it. But there is some kind of cliquishness to it. Ukrainian book readers (especially those who read books in Ukrainian) are some sort of a caste. It is not closed though and still has a tendency to quantitative growth. Everyone willing to join is welcome to the club. There is even a separate library-carriage with a book menu in the Kyiv-Lviv intercity train now, where everybody can order a novel by Kuzma Scriabin or Andriy Kokotyukha for the time of their trip. The list of books for order is, of course, not limited to those authors alone but is much bigger.

And if it is a real caste, there must be certain principles or even biases to it. And one of them, as it seems to me, is a certain kind of contempt for electronic readers. Like ‘how can it be possible? what about the smell of paper, its rustling? a printing ink? the beauty of a touch?’ and so on. I would compare this "snobbery" with any bank cards refusal – ‘cash only!’. Well, it also has the right to exist.

Do you believe in the power of an editor over a writer? Is it true that an editor can sometimes do wonders where a writer is powerless? Or is the situation with Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe rather the exception than the rule?

It is not an exceptional situation but it is quite a rare case. An editor is not a magician. It is not his job to make magic. But he is to help a writer make miracles more visible for the readers. The ideal editor has a peculiar oversensitivity to his authors. He should appreciate not only his author's texts, but also something in the author as an individual human being. It helps him/her force out the most secret and most valuable resources from the author. And at the same time, an editor should remain invisible enough, for if the book becomes successful all merits will still be attributed to the author alone.

I was surprised when, at the beginning of my collaboration with the German publishing house "Suhrkamp", I found out that the name of the editor would not be mentioned anywhere in my book. It seemed to me absolutely unfair, because Katharina Raabe did her utmost while working on that translation. But she reassured me that they always did so. It is a tradition. The names of editors are kept secret and are not indicated in books, because they are only so to say nameless servants of not even the authors but literature as such.

Strictly speaking, there is no such author and work that would not need an editor. An editor is the best friend of an author. Just as an executioner is the best friend of the executed.

Similarly, literary translators sometimes are indicated with such a tiny print that it is absolutely impossible to notice and read ше. It turns out that editors, translators, and some other participants of this process are kind of a power behind the throne. But is it right that all glory is always attributed to the author alone? It looks like some kind of dictatorship or authoritarianism.

In fact, it is not an accident that the words "authoritarianism" and "author" have the same root. The truth is that the situation offsets by means of the fact that most of us function as both: some people can be authors in one case (their names are written in uppercase letters then) and translators in the other (the letters then are significantly smaller), and sometimes they can even fulfill the role of editors. We exchange not only selfishness, but altruism as well. This, of course, does not apply to the classical authors, especially the living ones.

But the living classical authors are always exposed to the expectation of something grandiose and constantly outdoing oneself. It is kind of a good incentive, but how can one survive under this state of constant tension from the external pressures of "expectation"?

It's not that scary, at least in my case. For in my case, as Bohdan Zadura says, the worst is over. There are always some exalted fellows, who at first praise writers (against their will) as the so-called living classics and begin to go after them with their own expectations. Once the writers do not meet those expectations, they start to hate them. Such people seem to (thank God) have left me alone. They now have new victims, who are more interesting for them.

So if you ask me how to survive this tension, I would answer that all these words are too strong. I am totally against pathos. At one of my literary evenings in Drohobych one man said something accurate and witty about it: ‘you heroically refuse to be considered a hero’. I think, that is what it is.

Why do you think the question was only about you?

Well, I thought you were communicating with me, not with somebody else. Should I stop talking about myself? Then I will not be able to say anything specific.

Then I will finish my question. Have you noticed that writers are becoming more and more dependent on their readers and therefore they have to adapt to them somehow? Or I am wrong?

In order to become dependent on a reader, one needs to have a clear idea of what his/her reader is like. One has to believe in his existence. Who is this reader, what does he want from his author? I have merely a fragmentary image of my readers. The reader for me is an individual, there is nothing like a readers' mass for me. I often communicate with my readers, but it is always one single person I do not feel any need to depend on. The best ones among them are those who, on the contrary, depend on me.

Are you talking about young female students of the Departments of Philology?

Oh, no! What a cliché! Not female students and not from the Departments of Philology! No one reads there. Those who are related to the Departments of Philology do not even know my name, not to mention any works of mine. They did their best to make sure of that. Besides, the phrase ‘young female students’ is not very appropriate as well. I am rather read by elder female students, i.e. everlasting female students.

As a matter of fact, imagine a stranger of approximately forty years-old approaching me. He turns out to be a successful distributor of some electric cars. And suddenly he says, "I lived in London at that time and spent day and night reading your 'Perverzion'. I remember finishing it at around five o'clock in the morning. Then I remember sending an SMS to the office: "Do not wait for me. Will be back in the coming months". Then he went to the airport and took the best ticket to India he could find. He lived in an ashram for half a year. So I am talking about readers like this, i.e. those who changed their own lives and the lives of others after reading my books. Note that he read ‘Perverzion’ but instead of leaving for Venice he headed to India.

Or another case, not that extreme one. A young music fan traveling to Budapest for Sziget Festival by train and listening to Arctic Monkeys, recognizes me somewhere between Lviv and Vienna and says, 'whenever I return home from Europe, I always look for the cities I had visited in your 'Lexicon' ['The Lexicon of Intimate Cities' - edit.].

Or when I receive an email as of March 13th this year from Yurandir Amonati (this is such a pseudo, of course), who is one strange friend of mine, reading, 'I knew your 'India' by heart and often recited it to the girls I wanted to seduce. It usually worked'.

Or simply when I hear 'I haven't read anything in Ukrainian in my life until I accidentally stumbled upon your work. Now I cannot imagine how not to read in Ukrainian'.

Those are my readers. I can count them on the fingers of two, well, four hands maximum. But I keep writing for the sake of such readers, for the sake of such addictions, when, as it turns out, literature can still change lives.

And I'm not interested in any faceless mass reader, it does not exist. That’s it.

But does the author's figure have to play such an important role while reading the book? What is so special in those writers that they constantly become more interesting to people than their books? 

But is it possible to separate the writer from his work? Why contrast them? Where does this delimitation line run? Where does it say 'here I am, but there is what I write?' I do not feel such a line.

But you yourself once complained that people take more selfies with writers than read their books. And all those intense online debates regarding your political statements sometimes go far beyond literature and your literary work. Do you still prefer to stay on the optimistic and joyful side of the medal?

This is another topic which is completely different. This is not about readers. This is about another type of people who like selfies and heated online debates. Those people are not readers.

You must have noticed that we have no quarrels around the books, haven’t you? I mean that despite whatever you wrote in the book, don’t even hold your breath for a public condemnation, it will not happen. Why? Because the debate organizers do not read books, they have no time for it. Facebook, social networks in general, headings, columns, posts and reposts are their field. They live in a different far-from-literature world. 

Books are read by good and right people. They do not need to argue with anybody because it makes no sense for them.

I wonder how to transfer the Ukrainian "срач" [literally /srach/, Eng. ‘quarrel’, ‘debate’] and "срач in contemporary Ukrainian literature" into English as something absolutely unique? 

I would render it simply as 'srach' and make a footnote to explain that this is the most terrible, scandalous, hysterical, aggressive, primitive, and in other words, ‘Ukrainian’ form of debate.

That is funny. I remember a heated argument on Facebook last year concerning how Lyubko Deresh described sex in his book. It looked more like a mockery, but one page of his book was shot down in flames in less than a day. I am trying to tell you that I do not quite agree with you that the ‘lovers of arguments’ do not read books. I would rather say they read them, but they do not perceive them.

Well, no. That abstract was published by ‘Ukrayinska Pravda’ [Ukr. “Українська правда”, literally ‘Ukrainian Truth’ – a popular online newspaper in Ukraine]. And this is a resource where any literary text will be scathed and slated. So I repeat: ‘lovers of arguments’ (as you affectionately call them) do not read books. The highest achievement they are capable of is to plough through some rip excerpt on the UP.

And do you think it is alright to divide literature into ‘higher’, ‘lower’, highbrow, mass literature etc.?

It is fine. If we want to profoundly understand the essence of this phenomenon, then we have to qualify and classify it. 

Isn’t it a kind of racism in the age of political correctness?

If I can tell a detergent from cocaine, am I a racist? Political correctness should know its limits as well. By no means can it be used as dogma, otherwise it becomes nothing but a new form of censorship, and rather hypocritical one. It seems to me that it should be applied to the public texts of politicians (especially those in power) and to, let's call them so, public figures. Whereas, in terms of literary texts, including artistic journalism, political correctness is more likely to be inapplicable. To impose on the writer the same restrictive requirements as on the leader of a party is to reduce the generally correct idea to the absurdity.

Similarly, why do we still divide literature according to its origin? Like, for instance, we differentiate between English, German, Polish, Russian literature? This is also a nationalism people are afraid of today.

Nationalism began to imply some set of manifestations, which in fact go far beyond the bounds of this concept. Nowadays some people try to deal with the problems of the XXI century through the conceptual construct of the XIX century (when nationalism was born). I believe that today it is better to speak of total xenophobia in its comprehensiveness. It refers not only to the hatred to other nations, but to everything else as well: to other views, other lifestyles, other social groups, other age groups, other sex, other sexual orientations, other cultures, to all types of migrants, 'newcomers' or refugees on the one hand and locals, 'cocky' types on the other. As well as to black Africans, white Europeans or yellow Asians and so on and so forth. Xenophobia is wherever something strange is perceived as hostile or at least menacing.

There are as many nationalisms in the world as there are the nations. And nationalism is neither good nor bad: everything depends on its specific manifestation, the degree of aggressiveness, openness, closeness, inclusiveness, exclusiveness, imperial or separatist motivations etc. Nationalisms are immensely varying and therefore interesting for all kinds of comparative analyses. At the same time, xenophobia covers the unequally broader areas of human coexistence and is, in my opinion, a real evil. When we confine our entire versatility of xenophobia to nationalism, we contribute to this evil.

Literature is not to blame in this aggravation of the situation. It cannot exist in any language-free of beyond-the-language material (perhaps only temporarily), i.e. it is destined to be linked with a particular national language. But that is why we have translation: to overcome this narrowness and thereby make "strange" our own, or at least a little closer, symbolically reducing habitats of xenophobia in such a way.


Interviewed by Justina Dobush
Translated from the Ukrainian by Yulia Lyubka
Photographed by Justina Dobush and Anastasia Chuprynska

Caitlyn Garcia