Interview with Ukraine's most translated author, Russophone novelist Andrei Kurkov

Photo of Andrei Kurkov in Ukraine. Photo used with permission.

Andrei Kurkov is one of Ukraine's most translated authors. He writes his novels in Russian — something he has been unable to do since Russia's full-sale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, as he explains in an interview with Global Voices.

Kurkov trained as a Japanese translator and worked as a prison guard in Odesa, Ukraine, before publishing his first novel as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He writes essays, articles, children's books, and scripts, though he is mostly famous for his novels, which are typically a mix of dark humor, social criticism, and a deep understanding of the contradictions of the human condition. His novels are widely translated.

The interview took place over Zoom in English, with the author sleeping in the corridor after the heavy shelling of Kyiv. It has been edited for style and brevity.

Filip Noubel (FN): In your novel “Grey Bees,” recently published in English, you describe two older men living in a village who experienced the 2014 war in the east of Ukraine. Do you agree fiction does a better job of telling the stories of war than, for example, the media? 

Andrei Kurkov (AK): Before 2013 I travelled extensively in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine and this book is more about attitudes specific to that part of the country. Ukraine is huge, and each region has its own mentality. So this novel reflects some the archetypes present in Donbas mentality, such the reluctance to travel outside of their region. I remember once asking an older man there if he had ever traveled abroad, and he said: ‘No I never traveled abroad, I only went to Moscow.’ This illustrated for me the fact that subconsciously, for people of this generation, the Soviet life goes on, and thus Moscow is not considered to be part of a foreign country. But it also also echoes Soviet arrogance toward other formerly Socialist countries: A popular russian saying that stated back then:  ‘Курица не птица, Польша не заграница— that is, ‘A chicken is not a bird, and Poland is not abroad.’

In this novel I also wanted to show that people's attitude are often very accidental. There was no ideology after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, people became very passive politically speaking, and often aligned with the local mafia structures when asked to vote. Also, Russia has supported and financed deep nostalgia for the Soviet period. People in Donbas have been constantly reminded how life was much better before 1991  — even though it is not the case. In fact, people simply revisit a time when they were young, so it all seems a happier period in retrospective. In a way, this book is about the reluctance to make a choice, to fully understand the politics of life.

FN: Does fiction do a better job of describing the effect of war than media?

AK: Journalism gives fact, and must provide proof. Literature is made of human histories, so it can show their attitudes, and the effect particular events have on them. It provokes understanding and empathy, whereas journalism should lead you to analysis. But when you start analysing human lives, you forget about the human, whereas war is a purely human drama. This is the difference between statistics and the tragedy of a single person who was killed, and whose name you know.

FN: Are you able to write in the middle of yet another war, given that you live mostly in Kyiv? 

AK: I haven't been able to write fiction since February 2022 [the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine], I tried several times to come back to my unfinished novel, but have failed so far. I do write articles, and essays but less. Partially, this is because I am tired, but also because there is less demand. People across the world are getting used to this idea that this war will last for a long time, and everything they wanted to know about Ukraine, they know at at this point. So new texts about Ukraine are becoming less political because the politics of this war are very well known.

But we will have a huge cultural gap because of the war. And not just because writers are being killed or serve as soldiers and don't have time to write. But also because many authors write fiction that borders with propaganda, because books can be weaponized. But then there is a danger that the aggressor and everything connected to it gets dehumanized.  No doubt this will be an interesting topic for future philologists to study.

FN: Can we avoid having media and literary narratives about Ukraine being only about the war, as it frames the country in a very reductive way? 

AK: Almost all literature, including poetry, is now about the war. But this is also supported by the publishing industry abroad: All the books being translated from Ukrainian are about the war. Foreign publishers also request Ukrainian refugees to write books about their experiences. So now we have a new ‘refugee literature,’ yet soon those books about war and refugees will loose their appeal. Then Ukraine will need a new breakthrough with some kind of a super-novel to change all of that.

For more, read Global Voices’ collection of ten essays by Ukrainian writers who remained in Ukraine after February 2022: Wartime stories from Ukraine.

FN: How is the book scene in Ukraine today? 

AK: Inside Ukraine, people read books and want to read about Ukraine and its history, particularly those written by the intellectual elite of the 30s that was eliminated during Stalinist purges, and is known as the ‘executed Renaissance’. Some bookshops are operating, they are certainly not crowded and sales are low, except if there is a reading and signing of a book. Basically, no book event means no sale. Near my place there are weekly readings of prose and of poetry in a literary cafe, something you can see in Kyiv, but also in Lviv. People are now actually preparing for the September Lviv Book Fair. A few new projects are also being organized in the west of Ukraine.

FN: What is your current personal relation to Russian and Ukrainian languages?  

AK: I learnt Ukrainian in the Soviet period, and worked as a copy editor of translations of foreign novels into Ukraine. I write prose in Russian, and non-fiction in Ukrainian and English. As most bookshops do not want to sell books in Russian, it makes no sense for publishers to publish paper versions in Russian, but with e-books it is much easier).

There will be an interesting situation after the war: Unless it changes the constitution, the Ukrainian government has to guarantee the development of  ‘Russian and other minority languages.’ Now of course Russian is the language of the enemy, and there is a campaign to remove it. But people still speak Russian on the streets, and in some cities, almost only Russian, like in Odesa. To be clear, speaking Russian is a social phenomenon, not an ethnic one. And yet Russia killed many Russian-speakers in places like Mariupol, so the number of russian-speakers is being reduced. Besides, many younger generation are switching to Ukrainian, and refuse to speak Russian.

Several Global Voices authors have written about their own relation to the Russian language since February 2022. For more, read: How I ended up despising my mother tongue in Ukraine and How the war in Ukraine twisted my tongue.

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