Andrii Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer, whose books are widely read and sold in large numbers of copies. He is a member of the PEN International and the European Film Awards. He is the only writer on the post-Soviet space who made it to the top 10 of the world bestsellers list. Kurkov prefers working in the quiet atmosphere of his office or in the cinema. He devotes time to popularizing Ukrainian literature and eagerly participates in film festivals. This time, as a jury member at the IV International Film Festival in Odesa, besides doing his direct juror duties, he found time to show the beauty and mysteries of this port city to his wife and three children.
As a Ukrainian writer, who mostly lives in Ukraine and is seriously engaged in production, publication, and popularization of Ukrainian literature, are you offended by the fact that the Ukrainian language is being suppressed and intentionally driven out?
“I do not have this feeling. The Ukrainian language is losing ground because of the political situation in the country and because of the contexts we live in, where one region wants to dominate the others. But on the other hand, if we talk about literature, the problem is not about the language of Ukrainian literature, which exists, but about the economic situation in the publishing industry. The fact is that the book market fell and never recovered again, it does not exist. Officially, there are about 300 bookstores in Ukraine, and about 20 of them return money for sold copies to publishers. And there is no point for publishers to print more than 300 to 500 copies. They publish as much as they can sell at the Lviv forum or at the Book Arsenal. That is why no matter what language he uses, a writer who publishes his works in Ukraine is victim to the economic situation. On the other hand, harping on the necessity to protect the Russian language drives some Ukrainian-speaking writers into depression and, naturally, intensifies their victim complex, which is bad as it is. Of course, the literature of victim writers cannot enjoy high demand. Despite the fact that there always have been such writers as Les Ulianenko, literature has survived primarily due to its positive energy, because it stimulated people, motivated them, instead of pushing them away and slowing down. And again, for our country as a system, literature is not important because, unlike in Russia, art in general is not Ukraine’s hallmark, and Ukraine’s international image is the last on our leaders’ list of concerns. In Russia, the situation is just the opposite: literature has always been more than mere fiction there. And that is why for 20 years the state has been taking care of the literary process, promoting the ideologically ‘correct’ writers, taking them all over the world. And I think that there is not a single major international book fair, where Russia was not a guest of honor at least once or twice. Russia has been a guest of honor at the Salon du Livre in 2005, and last year Moscow was a guest of honor again. In this sense, they are doing a great job. That negative political image of Russia, which prevails in the West, is easily balanced and whitewashed by the positive cultural impact. And not only by tours of the not-so-good, but still so big Bolshoi Theater (or its ballet, to be more precise), but by writers, including those who do not support the regime. They visit book fairs at their own expense, or they are sponsored by their foreign publishers.”
Are there any examples of the government sponsoring Ukrainian writers?
“There are two foundations that are actively engaged in this kind of activity, and I am very grateful to them, because I am now carrying out some events with their help. These are Arsenii Yatseniuk’s Open Ukraine Foundation and Rinat Akhmetov’s Foundation for Development of Ukraine. Thanks to these two organizations, we held the first festival of Ukrainian literature in Cognac, France. In October we are launching the first (and I hope it will become regular) festival of Ukrainian prose in Austria, which we plan to hold every other year. I am this festival’s curator on the Ukrainian side. Well-known Austrian publisher Markus Hatzer supervises the Austrian part of the project. And in October we are going to have a big three-day event in Innsbruck, a city with an outstanding university, which has a great Slavic studies department. There is going to be a grand premiere of the German translation of Sweet Darusia by Maria Matios.”
But it is so complicated to deliver a high-quality literary translation, especially of a work by such sophisticated writer as Matios.
“Yes, it is complicated indeed. Claudia Dathe did the translation, she is an excellent translator. There are going to be four writers: Matios, my new book in German, Liubko Deresh, and Tania Maliarchuk, whose book in German has just been published.”
You are not new to film festivals, you have been a member of jury at many, including such large ones as Berlinale, KROK, Odesa International Film Festival, and so on. You have first-hand knowledge of cinematography. How could you describe the state of Ukrainian film-making industry today?
“This is a good question. I have a feeling that a rather active producer’s compound has appeared in Ukraine’s film industry, but a generation of young directors who would set to work as eagerly as producers, has been either lost or missed.”
Does the same apply to a generation of script writers, cameramen, etc.?
“Basically, yes. This applies to all branches. In general, the only school for our young filmmakers is television. But to be honest, this is a common international practice.”
It can hardly be relevant today, because television has become overly specific.
“Indeed, television is going down the hole, which resembles a black hole very much.”
Your books are published regularly, do you receive any offers from cinematography?
“I did receive some, but they were so-so. At least during two last years there were no offers here.”
And this is while a properly written script is not to be gotten for love nor money?
Can you tell us more about your plans: what are you writing, what are you working on, what are you going to publish?
“Considering the fact that I am in my fifties, I decided to write each novel like something… in other words, I am trying to create something new for myself. Starting from The President’s Last Love, I am trying to make every novel unexpected, first of all for myself. And now I decided to undertake a feasible, but still hard task. I am writing a novel without Ukraine and Ukrainians. I am trying to write a Lithuanian, European novel, where the main characters are Lithuanians, and the story unfolds in Lithuania, England, and France. And I am describing specific locations: in France they are Paris and Normandy, Pas-de-Calais, in England – London and Kent County.”
There are many Lithuanians there now, since their homeland is an EU member now.
“Yes, on the one hand, this novel is about emigration, but on the other, it is about Lithuania. Because even though it is a part of the European Union now, I am sure that few Europeans (well, except for Estonia and Latvia) will know anything about Lithuanian history. They do not know that in the 12th-14th centuries the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. They do not know that Lithuanians differ greatly in mentality and many other things. So, that is what my experiment is about. There is a surrealistic line with a character I ‘borrowed.’ My favorite poet Marcelijus Martinaitis, who, alas, died not long ago, had allowed me to use Kukucio (he had written Kukucio Ballads) as a character in one of the novel’s story lines. And in my novel, he walks through history and across Europe.”
You built your life in such a way that you could become a citizen of the world, like Maximilian Voloshin. You have three children, all of them are relatively grown up. And all of them need to think about their future. Do you see them having a future in Ukraine [Kurkov’s wife Elizabeth Sharp is a citizen of Great Britain. – Ed.]?
“In fact, our family is very democratic, and it is absolutely up to the children to decide where they want to live and what they want to do with their lives. I will accept any choice they make. I know, this matter is not yet urgent for my sons, Theo and Anton, they feel very good here, they are doing good at school. It is much more complicated with my daughter, she is 16. She talks about it quite often, but for now, she likes it here more than in England.”
Does she already know what she would like to do?
“No, not yet. I mean, she has all the things like public relations, design, including fashion design, and some other things on her mind.”
Well, that just makes a list of professions that do not fit into real life.
“Yeah, but she follows the fashion trends closely, she has been to Kyiv Fashion Show for a couple of times. Well, and we have known its main organizer, Ira Danylevska, for about 30 years…”
Not even Ukraine and Ukrainians become novel characters: is it a real life observation or a protest? And also, as a creative person who is capable of making logical chains, can you say something about our future? Mind you, I am not trying to provoke you and I do not expect prophecies.
“I think that I do not really mind that the topic of my new novel is perceived as my personal unwillingness to write about the present-day Ukraine. I do not mind this opinion because I really do not see progress in society. Our society is stuck, it is frozen, and all the ways out of this situation that I see are very dramatic. This is if we talk about my attempt at analysis. That is why I do not want to create false characters or write about losers.”
Is it possible to change the status quo in Ukrainian literature and cinematography? Supposing the state turns a good eye to culture and starts protecting it?
“Not that much is required to change it. The government must be capable of strategic thinking and an ability to see at least a decade ahead. Too often have we seen that any leader, any ruling party is very short-sighted and does not see further than until the next election. And it does not matter, whether it is a presidential or parliamentary election. At the moment they are all preparing for the next presidential election. And nobody cares about what is going to happen after 2015. If they win, they will have another five-year perspective, only remembering about the voters on the eve of the following election campaign. So they do not care about the country’s image. Moreover, I think that cultural events alone are not enough to whitewash Ukraine’s image today.”