"A good prose writer has to be able to get into the skin of his enemies and give them a word": An Interview with Oleksandr Boichenko

Oleksandr Boichenko (born in 1970) is a Ukrainian literary critic, editor, essayist and translator from Chernivtsi. He is a friend to many Ukrainian writers who, according to him, have repeatedly stayed at his house for a night and had coffee with him in his kitchen. He is one of the founders of the international poetry festival “Meridian Czernowitz”, which for the past nine years has brought artists together from all over Europe and the world to Chernivtsi, to fill the city of Paul Celan with poetry.

Over a glass of wine, Oleksandr Boichenko spoke about the reflection of war in the texts of Ukrainian writers, the sins of intellectuals and the place of Ukrainian literature in the context of world literature. 

How would you describe the current literary trends in Ukraine?

As with every artistic environment, Ukrainian has never been and is not homogeneous. There are always some divisions, like ideological, aesthetic, or simply human sympathies and aversions. I can only talk about my entry to the part of the environment that is the closest to me. If to divide Ukrainian literature of the 1990s into two parts by a very rough ax, it could be said that there existed traditionalists and postmodernists. 

As a teacher of twentieth-century foreign literature, I was more interested in the ironic and facetious postmodernists. The first phenomena that interested me were “Bu-Ba-Bu” and the so-called “Stanislav phenomenon”, in other words, a relatively young literature circle of neighboring Ivano-Frankivsk at that time. Yuri Andrukhovych belonged to both of these phenomena. It is precisely he who played a key role in the fact that I believed in the good future of Ukrainian literature. At the same time, the traditionalists with their educational and patriotic pathos and nineteenth century stylistics seemed too outdated to me, and they actually were.

Gradually, the circle of my literary and, later, personal communication was formed. It includes Yuri Andrukhovych, Taras Prokhasko, Yuri Vynnychuk, Oleksandr Irvanets, Andriy Bondar, Serhiy Zhadan, and then Andriy Lyubka.

Today, the division into traditionalists, postmodernists and other -ists is not so distinct anymore, and perhaps not so significant. Still, there are those who believe that literature is a very serious occupation, which should serve the people and the country. There are also those who may recognize literature as a serious occupation, but believe that it requires, above all, service to itself.

What is your opinion on it?

I don’t write fiction; therefore, I don’t have this problem of choice. In general, it is well-known that when literature becomes a tool of the politician or of the propagandist, it becomes damaged.   

Gabriel García Márquez called himself a revolutionary. As to the question where his revolutionary texts are, he answered: “The revolutionary duty of a writer is to write as well as possible.” Each author has to make his own conscious choice. Perhaps one of the acceptable ways would be to avoid agitation and propaganda in literature to the maximum, while expressing one’s own ideological and political beliefs in related genres: columns, blogs, and articles.

In the book More / Less you wrote about Ukrainian intellectuals. So who are these people? 

I follow the formula suggested by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. An intellectual is a person who generates and implements certain ideas, that is, he is engaged in a creative work with a word. He is not a scientist who reveals new scientific truths, nor a teacher who transmits these truths to others. An intellectual creates a new image of the world and imposes it on society.

The task of an intellectual is to respond to the challenges of his time. But in practice, does he or she always do it well? I don’t think so. An intellectual takes risks while making new paths. Since they are new, there is never a guarantee that these paths will lead to the desired goal. It often goes wrong. Was the capitalism of the nineteenth century fair? No, it wasn’t. Intellectuals understood it and generated ideas which had to change this world for the better. What did they eventually give rise to? Communism, fascism and national socialism, namely, the regimes which destroyed dozens of millions of people. Instead of improving the world, it gave way to the catastrophic worsening of it.

An intellectual can be a philosopher, a historian or a writer, but at the same time he is more important, a figure who changes the world with his ideas. For example, in France after the Second World War, among such intellectuals were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

With the rise of an independent Ukraine, such people have appeared again. They write and engage in debates. There are Mykola Riabchuk and Yaroslav Hrytsak, for example. How many people read them, though? How many people read Krytyka magazine or the website Zbruc ? If we talk not about the novelty of socio-political ideas, but about the influence, then it is obvious that the most influential are those people whose works are read at least outside university departments. Among them are Serhiy Zhadan, Yuri Andrukhovych, and Oksana Zabuzhko.

By what criteria do you select texts for translation?

I translated Good Stalin by Victor Erofeyev and a few texts by Igor Pomerantsev from the Russian, including The Basque Dog, which was the most stylistically difficult. In both cases, besides artistic value, it was personal acquaintance that mattered as well as a desire – both my own and the authors’ – that their books would be released in the Ukrainian language.

It was the same with the novel Tartak by Polish author Daniel Odija. The other two Polish books were Beautiful Twentysomethings by Marek Hlasko and a collection of short stories about life in Auschwitz by Tadeusz Borowski. There was no personal acquaintance, only a desire to translate those works which I consider to be important and outstanding from the point of view of literature. 

Hlasko writes about the experience of living in communist Poland, and Borowski about the experience of surviving in a Nazi concentration camp. Their works are phenomena of Polish literature, and it’s a pity that Ukrainians don’t know much about them.

In addition, I consider the anthology of contemporary Polish plays, on which we worked with Oleksandr Irvanets and Andriy Bondar important. Most of these plays are about Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

We, Ukrainians, are only getting closer to the topic. We usually portray ourselves as victims, and it is true: in history we were mostly victims. However, we were criminals as well. We have to realize it and accept our own guilt if we want to be mentally healthy.

Now I hope to find the time to translate one more Polish book, I Blame Auschwitz by Mikołaj Grynberg. It is a conversation with the children of those who survived the Holocaust. It’s an extremely powerful book. Besides, this is also a practical study of post-traumatic syndrome. The syndrome which we in Ukraine will have to overcome in the coming years.


What is your new book Vorokhtarium about?

This book was co-authored with the writer Yuri Andrukhovich and the editor-in-chief of Zbruc, Orest Drul. 

Orest was the moderator, giving topics and provoking lively conversation. And we tried to think aloud about this and that. The book is called Vorokhtarium, because we created it in Vorokhta. During three days in the mountains, with a recorder on, we were chatting. We were not stressed by our duty to fix for eternity all that we know about all the most important things. We were simply speaking our minds. At times we spoke about Shakespeare, about Franko, about some writing methods, and then about some life stories. 

We also wanted to talk about Donbas, but then changed our minds.

In some of your texts, you say that Ukraine would be better off without Donbas and Crimea. Why do you think so?

I spoke and wrote much about it before the war. Nevertheless, in this time of the war, I have to think carefully about how not to cause even more damage. I just do not know how to talk correctly about this topic today.

We cannot lie to ourselves, standing at the edge of the abyss and living in the illusion that the population of Donbas and Crimea massively dream of getting rid of Russia and returning to Ukraine and joining the efforts to move towards NATO and the European Union. Certainly, there are people who dream of it, but they are not in the majority. Those of us who were in the occupied and even unoccupied frontline territories know what the majority there dreams of. Before the war, I spoke a lot about the dangers of the situation where different parts of the country saw the future in a completely different way.

It’s possible to come to an agreement as to the long history of past events, as well to find a compromise on the language issue, as well as to move the country away from religious controversies. If, suppose, I want Ukraine to be in a common military and economic space with the West, and you want it with Russia, then how can we find common ground? Such common ground does not exist.

That is why I said that this conflict couldn’t be smoothed away and that it would be better to leave peacefully, rather than to wait for an explosion which would cost human lives. It resembles a marriage: if there is love and a desire to solve problems mutually, you should try to solve them. If there is neither love nor willingness for a compromise, you should get divorced and shouldn’t torture each other. Having the Yugoslavian and Czechoslovakian scenarios as an example, I kept saying that, a Czechoslovakian one should be chosen, until it’s too late. But now I don’t know which is the right way out, because of the interference of an external factor, that is, Russian aggression. It is only obvious that the first thing to do is to neutralize this factor, though it’s not totally clear how to do it. 

What will happen when the war ends? An optimistic variant is that Crimea and Donbas come back, and we all happily move forward toward a European future. It seems to me, at least for a few decades, to be unrealistic. 

What do you think about the understanding of the war in the texts of Ukrainian writers?

We are still far from a serious understanding of this. However, we already have good texts related to the war. For example, Point Zero by Artem Cech. He is a young writer who was part of the intellectual life in Kyiv before he went to war. Artem recorded this very new experience in short sketches-reflections. He described daily life on the front lines, but without describing the fighting. That is, there is almost no war as such.

The novel Internat by Serhiy Zhadan also resonated with people. However, this text is not exactly about the war, but about its reflection in the eyes of three generations of civilians. The power of the novel is that it shows a few truths, not one objective truth, because we still do not know everything about this war, but rather a few subjective ones.

A member of an older generation – the main protagonist’s father – watches TV all the time. We do not know what he is thinking about, but we can guess what kind of television is on demand in Eastern Ukraine.

The middle generation is represented by Pasha, a teacher of the Ukrainian language, who doesn’t really care about the color of the flag over his school, or if somebody needs the Ukrainian language here.

That is the reason why I like Zhadan’s text, for his ability to show the truth of life without blind patriotism. Because if there are such teachers of the Ukrainian language, how do Russian language teachers and miners of Akhmetov treat Ukraine?

However, Pasha has to go on a three-day trip to take his nephew Sasha from the boarding school. During these three days, due to his nephew, he begins to understand the situation in the country.

Here Zhadan gives us hope: the younger generation, in his opinion, can still be saved. But what about the older generations ? Even if the war ends with our quick and uncontested victory, we will still have many problems in the East.

After the war is over, and it will take many years to come, only then we can hope for really good novels about the war. Why? Because really good prose takes time. It needs calmness and letting the opposite side have their word.

In hot pursuits, there is hatred. It is understandable and justified, but that hatred destroys empathy. A good prose writer has to be able to get into the skin of his enemies and give them a word. As a person you can hate them, but as a writer – you have to make them compelling, you have to describe them with a kind of writer's love.

The novel about the war, if it ever appears, should explain to me what such heroes as Motorola, Givi and Zakharchenko were guided by, and what truths they died for.

How do writers from around the world, with whom you communicate, especially during the Meridian Czernowitz, perceive Ukrainian literature?

Those who come to Meridian Czernowitz from German-speaking countries know the names of our writers whose texts are translated into German. In particular,  they know Andrukhovych’s and Zhadan’s books. For them it is high quality literature. This is proven at least by the amount of awards that their texts have already received in Germany.

Most of our writers are known in Poland. The Polish publish almost all the famous Ukrainian writers and they praise our literature. But do ordinary readers in Europe read Ukrainian literature?

Sometimes two-to-three thousand copies of our books are published. Some famous writers publish ten-to-fifteen thousand copies of their books. Well, then how can people from other countries read Ukrainian literature?

Which of the Ukrainian works do you consider important for readers from other countries? And what is the place of Ukrainian literature in the context of world literature?

The American poet Robert Frost once described poetry as what gets lost in translation. Our greatest literary achievements in different times are poetry, moreover, a rhymed one. This poetry remains outside the world's literary context.

Our great trio – Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka – is the most important here, because with all its ideological and mental pluses and minuses we have formed, as we are, with all our advantages and disadvantages. They are not just poets, they are the creators of the nation. Although in the West, they are of little interest to anyone but specialists. This is normal: those people have their own nation creators. Why do they need foreign ones? 

Another favorite is the prose writer Vasyl Stefanyk, but because he wrote in the Pokutsky dialect, it is practically impossible to translate his texts correctly into other languages. The others are the Executed Renaissance: early Tychyna and Rylsky, Pluzhnik, Svidzinsky.

This is poetry of the highest world level, but still poetry, and therefore, again, without a chance to break through to a wider circle of foreign readers. And the same  goes for Antonych, and later Stus. It is not right to say that they are completely unknown in the world, but they are known much less than they could be if they had written in English, German or French. 

I have already named those who are more well-known. I will also add that I highly appreciate Sophia Andrukhovych and Tanja Maljartschuk, Iryna Tsilyk and Kateryna Kalytko. Some of them are quiet successes in the West, others are to become more successful in the future.

But in fact, we have a lot of talented writers. If they cope with the issues that Ukrainian life offers them today, they’ll make their way to the Western readers too, and we will have very good literature.

Interviewed by Oksana Chorna
Translated from the Ukrainian by Tatyana Kryzhanovskaya and Nikita Moskaluk
Photographed by Julia Dragan

Caitlyn Garcia