“I have long doubted the veracity of Theodor Adorno’s quote that after Auschwitz poetry is impossible,” wrote the poet, essayist, and reporting journalist Les Belei at the beginning of March. “I thought this thesis is too pompous and exaggerated, but after the tragic events in Kyiv I comprehended its mechanics. When law enforcers switched from rubber bullets to sharp ammunition, the only thing I could oppose was books in my breast pockets.” Belei protected himself from bullets with books. He says this has no metaphorical meaning: a thick layer of paper can save from small caliber bullets.
At the Book Arsenal Belei presented his first reportage book, Likhie devianosti. Liubov i nenavyst v Uzhhorodi (The Wicked Nineties. Love and Hatred in Uzhhorod). It was written last year and recently printed by Tempora Publishing House. The author picked that specific city because he was born and grew up there. He studied at the Uzhhorod and Wroclaw universities, defended a thesis on language landscape, and wrote two poetry collections Son et Lumiere. Lysty bez vidpovidi (Son et Lumiere. Unanswered Letters) and Dzerkalny kub (The Mirror Cube).
Your book is called The Wicked Nineties. Love and Hatred in Uzhhorod. This is approximately the period of your childhood and youth. What memories of that time do you have?
“Only the first part of the book is dedicated to my childhood years, the 1990s. These are my personal impressions, as well as those of my generation on the whole. There is another part about the youth in the 1990s: on students, subcultures, ways of making money in the conditions of total shortages, transformational changes, emergence of racketeering, specifically Transcarpathian racketeering, criminal gang leaders, the most important people in the city, and beauty contests that appeared back then.
“It is a whole continent of stories, a period of the absolute change of the state and system: opening of borders, arrival of benefits of the Western civilizations, or emergence of normal music, Ukrainian in particular (like the Territory A TV show). In Uzhhorod, since it is so close to border, everything relied on smuggling. What was different about a childhood in Uzhhorod? Our sweets were made in Slovakia and Hungary.”
Your most recent book of poems was published two years ago. Since then, you have been mostly busy with reports. Why did you make such a turn?
“I happened to curate several translation projects of reportage literature and a contest of artistic reports ‘The Eyewitness.’ It seems that it is an absolute lacuna in Ukraine. We have extremely cool poetry, you can come across pretty good prose, but Ukrainian authors almost do not have reports. That is why, actually, Tempora Publishing House tries to launch this process in some way. I have a lot to do with the topic, that is why I decided to write something myself.”
What do you think is a trump card of Ukrainian reporting, and what does it lack?
“A wealth of uncovered subjects is the trump card of Ukrainian reporting. After just coming out of your apartment, you can already find an interlocutor with some sort of interesting story. The rest is problematic. For example, Ukrainian publishing houses mostly do not publish reports. Sometimes they do try, but it is not anywhere close to what it is like in Poland, for example, where Gazeta Wyborcza has its own school of authors, such as Hanna Krall, Mariusz Szczygiel, Witold Szablowski, Jacek Hugo-Bader, and Krzysztof Varga.”
Do you have any icons in reporting?
“I am inspired by any quality texts. It is New Journalism in the US in the 1960s, and Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, and everyone from that generation. If we talk about my book on the 1990s in Uzhhorod, I was inspired by Mariusz Szczygiel’s book Sunday that Happened on Wednesday. This is his collection of reports on the 1990s in Poland. Having read it and edited the Ukrainian translation, I thought that the Ukrainian 1990s are a whole ‘continent.’ It is interpreted in fiction: let us remember the priceless stories about the 1990s of Donbas and Kharkiv by Serhii Zhadan, the 1990s of Zaporizhia described by Pavlo Volvach, and the 1990s of Galicia – by Yurii Andrukhovych. All this is fictional interpretation, but we did not have reporting interpretation yet. Readers are interested in this period. I know that the publishing house has already made an agreement with the authors to continue the project, in particular, with Vladyslav Ivchenko about Sumy and Denys Kazansky about Donetsk.”
Who among modern foreign and Ukrainian reporters do you find the most innovative?
“I like experiments by Witek Szablowski. His last book Our Little Communist Poland is on how his wife and he decided to reconstruct the daily life of the Polish People’s Republic of 1981 (interview with Witold Szablowski in Den’s issue No. 229, December 12, 2013). It is an interesting experiment and an extremely fascinating book. As for Ukrainian authors, Oleh Kryshtopa creates outstanding reportages, in my opinion. In general, I am greatly pleased by ‘The Eyewitness’ winners. The first ‘graduates’ are Oleh Kryshtopa, Natalka Humeniuk, and Denys Kazansky. This year, absolutely new names have appeared. Iryha Hyshchuk received the first prize. She wrote a quality report on how tourism business works. Of course, I wish there would be more of reporting material. In my opinion, the last contest was not as successful because the revolution started. As it usually happens here, participants intended to submit works on the last day before the deadline, and the revolution was in full swing back then. Even though the topic was rewarding: on labor activity of Ukrainians. But even despite these extreme conditions, the top ten came out quite good.”
Did you do any experiments to gain unusual information?
“The biggest punishment for a reporter is a barrier between you and a person you talk to. There are various approaches to that. When I gathered information for my most recent project I’m working on (a book written jointly with Lukasz Saturczak on relations between Ukraine and Poland), I talked with a lot of people and realized it is sometimes extremely hard to establish a contact with your interlocutor. Moreover, when people see a working dictaphone in front of them, they get scared, it is stressful for many. And then Lukasz told me a ‘secret’ that it is better to hold the dictaphone in a pocket. Also, anonymity is often preserved in this way: the names are changed, etc. As for experiments, so far I have been doing classic reportage only.”
Did you intend writing about Maidan?
“I was too close to these events, and a reporter must maintain some distance from the subject. What you write about should not relate to you personally.”
In your opinion, what changes for book market will the revolution bring?
“I really hope new names will appear in Ukraine, a new generation of Remarque, Celine, Hasek. This is my dream. I hope very much that those who threw Molotov cocktails and stood up against the bullets at the front line will have something to say.”