This new book of his is about a small town on the Ukrainian-Russian border where people are trying to find their place in the world in what seems like a very fascinating time. Bad language, psychedelic humour and minor characters, like guys sporting church domes tattooed all over their chests, make up the majority of this tale. But beneath the jokes and sometimes brutal irony that is the outrageous reality of life in Ukraine, lays the truth: an alluring country that, to this day, has been unable to overcome the Soviet ties that bind.
The writer himself was but a young man during the Soviet era, and as a result, themes from this time often find refuge in his books. Criticised for his nostalgic portrayals of a hugely controversial time, Zhadan says, “It’s complete nonsense. I have a certain sentiment connected to my youth, yes, but none of it is connected to ideology. In fact, my last novel was about memory and how important it is to remember everything: because if you are okay with your past then you’ll have a good chance at your future.”
While he is one of the most popular writers in Ukrainian literature today, Zhadan says his prose is not for everyone. “Not because it is so intellectually outstanding, but because it’s specific and not everyone will like it, which I accept.” Bearing witness to this tale today, there is the occasional gasp from the elder fractions at a particular word he has chosen. He explains that the fowl language is an essential part in many of his characters. And while he acknowledges the time and money people spend on his books, he also says, “I have a certain audience now and they expect certain things of me: to adjust myself for the masses would be unfair.”
Making Ukrainian Profitable
Born in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, Serhiy Zhadan went on to study and now lives in Kharkiv. While both cities are dominated by Russian speakers, the fact that he both speaks and writes in Ukrainian already makes him a literary phenomenon. He can’t take all the credit, however, as it was his aunt, Oleksandra Kovalyova, an author herself, who inspired him to become a professional Ukrainian writer. She was able to demonstrate to him that one did not have to speak Russian or surzhyk (the mixture of Ukrainian and Russian that is usually used in such eastern areas of Ukraine), to get by in the world. Literary Ukrainian was also an option.
At the moment, his professional resume consists of six works of prose and an even higher number of books of poetry and compilations. Winning various prizes all over Ukraine and Poland, he has proved that Ukrainian-language literature is not only popular but financially profitable. As proof after the presentation, almost all of his books have been sold and there is a very long line of fans waiting for an autograph from all walks of life.
Young girls look at him adoringly as he poses with them for a picture, and when I ask him to fill me in on the secret to his success, he looks at me slightly surprised saying, “I am where I am today because of people who believed in me. It was only after my first novels were published in Poland that German publishers became interested, and then a few Italian and British publishers followed course as well. Unfortunately, I can’t say that this is the norm.”
Beer and Prose
While it may be impossible for one author to shower attention upon the entire guild of Ukrainian literature, I’m quite surprised that Serhiy Zhadan agreed to meet with me at all; and almost immediately after my request. Noticing my train of thought, he says, “Ukrainian writers are reserved, they aren’t easy to contact. Literature is of course about writing but there is a literary process as well and that includes public activity. Despite the fact that many Ukrainian writers think sitting in a pub and drinking with colleagues is in fact a public activity, presentations, public readings, interviews, meeting with readers and so on are all essential parts of being a writer.”
Without an agent, Zhadan has been dealing with the promotion of his books himself, something he admits takes a lot of time and energy. He’s done it this way on purpose, however, as he thinks that hiring someone to promote him would make the whole process
“purely commercial and mechanic”.
While he does seem to be overworked, he says being a Ukrainian writer feels pretty good. “I work for no one, am completely independent, and depend on my own wishes and desires to create my own success. Wherever I go I feel completely free, and to tell you the truth I cannot now imagine myself being anything other than steeped in literature.”
As we talk, Zhadan seems inspired, like he’s already got ideas for another new book. While that may be in the works, the real reason is that he’s just returned from Ukraine’s biggest book fair – a four-day long opportunity for Ukrainian publishers and writers to get together and talk about what’s happening in the literary world as we know it today. “The Lviv Publishers’ Forum makes us scholarly types feel as though we are needed,” he tells me, “because after these four days we all go back into our deep, dark holes for yet another year.”
While the world’s biggest book markets like the one in Frankfurt focus mainly on selling the copyrights to international publishers, the biggest feature about the one in Lviv is that books are sold at hugely discounted prices. Zhadan’s latest book had a print run 5,000 copies which, by Ukrainian standards, is a pretty big number. But even still, selling your wares at a significantly lower rate than what they’re worth makes it tough for Ukrainian authors to make a living. Unfortunately, this European attitude toward publishing is one that has yet to catch on here in Ukraine, and is something Zhadan sees, if going to succeed, will need State intervention. “Private initiatives can only take us so far, so if we want to attract European publishers, there needs to be a programme put in place by government that offers favourable conditions for Ukrainian literature copyright.”
Dogs and the Press
While he understands what may be necessary for international success, Zhadan really tries to stay away from the political arena and has little in the way of positive reinforcement when it comes to conversations about the Kharkiv administration or the current president. And yet, there are also situations when he finds it difficult to remain impervious to what is going on around him; such as this summer in Berlin, where he was smack in the middle of activists protesting the oppression of Ukraine’s freedom of speech.
But in fact, Zhadan can often be found among pages of various online posts and printed press where his comments about the latest news or current political event are right there in black and white. His reasoning is that, “When politicians no longer form the moral authority of the people, they turn to writers, compelling them to do what they cannot.”
But when he’s not busy writing books or posting on blogs, Zhadan reveals that there is another aspect to his life that keeps him busy: collaboration with the Kharkiv ska band, Dogs in Space. “We started working together just as an experiment but seeing as we fit together quite well and people actually like us, it’s turned into a long-term project!” What their project entails is a mixture of Zhadan’s intellectual wit with the musical stylings of ska, and put together they have created a real underground kind of indie showpiece. Giving us a little taste of what goes on when Dogs in Space get together, Serhiy Zhadan raps his perfectly meted prose, stumbles once, but then picks it up right where he left off. And all at the insistence of his readers – real lovers of Zhadan literature!