New_Magazine - Kurkov

Photo: Golos.UA (c) 2013

‘Found in translation’, by Andrey Kurkov

Renowned novelist Andrey Kurkov explores how Ukrainian literature is crossing new frontiers

by Andrey Kurkov

Nobody expects government to give cultural matters top priority. But when the new cabinet of ministers was formed after the last parliamentary elections and no Minister of Culture was named at all, things looked very bleak indeed. The rumour that fierce competition over the post was behind the delay in choosing a Minister seemed unrealistic. After a few days of speculation, however, all went quiet and two months later the portfolio was given to an ex-Deputy Minister of Culture with experience of cabinet life from the Soviet period.

Theatre and circus managers breathed a sigh of relief. They knew this new Minister would put state institutions first. This was not all bad either because libraries are also state institutions and there are thousands of them all over Ukraine. True, a proposed new law drawn up by the Cabinet of Ministers would free the state from any responsibility for buying books for these libraries. The same draft law scraps government support for the translation of international literary classics into Ukrainian. There is a lot more interest in this draft law, but we will focus on books because they are at the heart of some of the saddest — and the most heartening — developments in the country.

You may wonder how one and the same subject can be, at once, the cause of pessimism and great hope, but I will try to explain why this is the case, focusing only briefly on the bleak aspects of the subject and expounding about the good things at some length.

In the course of Ukraine’s twenty years of independence, the country’s publishing ‘industry’ has not become a business, and the book ‘trade’ has not developed a market. Ukraine won a few battles against Russian book importers, but the importers of Russian books won many more. Then in 2012 the book trade in Ukraine showed a most astonishing result: of the 300 bookshops in the country, only 11 returned to the publisher the takings for books sold. As a result publishers stopped supplying bookshops and reduced the print runs of their publications to a number they would be able to sell through their own outlets. Only authors published and sold by Klub Domashnego Dosuga (‘The Home Leisure Club’) have not suffered. Because this publisher, which is the Ukrainian branch of the German firm Bertelsmann, sells its books via catalogue directly to the reader, delivering the books by post.

Even before this situation arose, some of the more energetic Ukrainian authors were looking for a way out of Ukraine’s ‘non-market’. Some of them found publishers in Poland. In translation their books did better in Poland than in Ukraine. Natalka Snyadanko was the first star to appear in this way. This author from Lviv writes really well and on interesting topics. Her novel A Collection of Passions, or the Adventures of a girl from Galizia made it onto the Polish bestseller list, while in Ukraine its popularity was restricted to a narrow circle of contemporary Ukrainian literature enthusiasts. Beyond Poland, in Austria and Germany, books by Ukrainian authors soon caught the attention of the student readership. Through their ‘Yellow’ series, the Surkampf publishing house started actively promoting Liubko Deresh, Yurko Andrukhovich, Taras Prokhasko, among others. Books by Natalka Snyadanko and Oksana Zabuzhko were translated into German and published in Austria, while Timofei Gavriliv was published in Switzerland.

Simultaneously, a few individual activists in Ukraine, as well as some publishers, started to promote Ukrainian literature abroad. The Calvaria Foundation and publisher Mykola Kravchenko organised a meeting with Norwegian and French publishers and translators. They found the money to hold a seminar in Lviv for young German translators from Ukraine — and discovered that any involvement by the government in the effort to promote Ukrainian books, and Ukrainian culture in Europe, would only slow down or sidetrack the process.

So it is that, thanks to two private Ukrainian foundations and the interest of European partners, Ukrainian contemporary literature, having floundered on its own territory, is ‘riding high’ in Western Europe. In November 2012, Ukraine was the guest of honour at the Festival of European Literature in Cognac, France. The literary movers and shakers in the French province of Poitou-Charante, with about 2 million inhabitants, achieved something truly amazing. In the villages and towns throughout the province the Ukrainian flag was raised outside the public libraries and over the course of the six months leading up to the festival, these libraries promoted contemporary Ukrainian literature. The library-goers did not only read Ukrainian books in translation, but also discussed them and voted in a ‘Readers’ Favourite’ competition. When the Ukrainian authors arrived for the festival they were recognised in the street and asked for their autographs.

Volunteers for the festival — including officers from a nearby military base — ferried authors around in their cars, from one meeting with readers to another. Poitou-Charante may be only a small region, but its inhabitants are now better informed about contemporary Ukrainian literature than those of Paris or Marseille! Mind you, Paris did host some events for the authors before the festival and several of the authors also spoke before an audience of Eurodiplomats in Strasburg.

This expansionist tendency looks set to continue. At the next Paris Book Fair Ukrainian literature will be represented at one joint publishers’ stand. Two delegations of authors will attend the Paris Book Fair and the Leipzig Book Fair, and all without the support of the Ministry of Culture. Then in autumn 2013, the Austrian city of Innsbruck will host another literary festival dedicated to Ukrainian literature, where the centerpiece will be the presentation of the German translation of the Maria Matios’ ‘Solodka Darusa’.

True, attracting the attention of the British reading public to contemporary Ukrainian writing could be a very tough challenge. However, we are hopeful that the wave of success that Ukrainian books are having on the continent will wash over a little onto the shores of the British Isles. And actually this work has already begun – Glagoslav Publishing has translated and published a number of books by contemporary Ukrainian authors including a novel by Maria Matios, who is definitely the author most deserving of international attention. The more that is achieved, the more convinced we are that what previously seemed impossible, is, in fact, within reach.