Language: Ukrainian

The Multilingual Carpathians: Weronika Gogola in Conversation

“Only by picking up a magnifying glass and taking a close look at things can you see the truth about yourself and others.”

Weronika Gogola is a Polish writer and translator from Slovak and Ukrainian. Her first autobiographical book Po trochu (Little by Little, 2017), which depicts her childhood in the small village of Olszyny in the Carpathian mountains, is composed of “stories from real life that are usually told bit by bit, in snippets and fragments.” The book was nominated for several literary prizes and in October 2018 won the Conrad Award for a prose debut. For the past three years, Gogola has been based in Bratislava, where Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia, caught up with her last November.

Julia Sherwood: First of all, congratulations on winning the Conrad Award! I loved your book and think that the prize was more than deserved. What does it mean for you?

Weronika Gogola: This award is incredibly important to me, especially since, in the case of the Conrad Award, it’s not just the judges who decide but, first and foremost, the readers. I’m incredibly grateful to them. Besides, a prize is a kind of validation, as well as a bargaining chip for the future. I know that sounds unfair but that’s how the world works—the more prizes and nominations you have the more seriously you are taken. Unfortunately. But, of course, it’s nice to be appreciated. In addition, the Conrad Award includes a grant, which has allowed me to concentrate on my writing without financial worries.

JS: Your book is very firmly located in the world of your childhood. You grew up in a small village in rural Poland, yet ended up living abroad, and are currently based in Slovakia. Were you already living abroad while working on your book, and did the geographical distance give you a new perspective on the place, or did this make the writing more challenging?

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Dispatch: Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Human representation has acquired a renewed central position, previously abdicated in favor of animals and such.

Four days of intense work within a whirlwind of smiling people who convene here year after year like old friends, while at the same time looking for, proposing, and selling stories that will hopefully enchant today’s children. It is the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the most important event for children’s literature in the world, taking place every year in Italy. This year’s edition ended almost three weeks ago. From March 26 to 29, seventy-seven countries and regions, 1,390 exhibitors, and 27,642 publishing professionals gathered in a bustle of illustrators, authors, publishers, agents, translators, booksellers, and journalists.

Walking through the stands, one can run into tidy lines of novice illustrators who, nervous and creatively dressed, are waiting to exhibit the works they clutch in their hands. One could also bump into celebrations of publishing houses’ “birthdays” or other anniversaries, while inside the stands, agents exhibit new books’ plates before the publishers’ and journalists’ attentive eyes. Just around the corner, interesting educational events are taking place while trembling crowds of aficionados await to meet their favorite artists in flesh and blood. The air is international: in just a few steps one can walk from the forests of Northern Europe to the colossal American stands, to the elegant French stalls. From there you can meet the Japanese artist who collects pebbles and encloses them in personalized books, along with artists, writers and editors from Iran, Chile, Africa and India.

These four days are a vortex of fatigue, legs grinding mile after mile among the stands and eyes taking in an extraordinary amount of illustrations, images, and stories. Once back home, it is necessary to take a few days to detox and reflect upon what one has lovingly noted.

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In Conversation: Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky on Words for War

There’s a way in which great poetry goes beyond the specifics of language, time, and place, illuminating patterns.

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky are award-winning poets from opposite ends of Ukraine, writing in Ukrainian and Russian, respectively. They work together as translators from Russian and Ukrainian to English, having lived in the US for over a decade. When Crimea, where Max is from, was annexed by Russia, and the war started in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the geographic and linguistic differences they embody became markers of a conflict they were detached from, yet that was intimately close. The war gave Ukrainian poetry an impetus they could not ignore as translators, prompting them to assemble a collection that documents the war in its multiplicity, from various positions, modes of involvement, across languages. Words for War (Academic Studies Press, 2017), the resulting anthology, replants poetic testimonies of the war away from the local ground—there, the war loses some of its singularity—at once a document of this particular conflict and poems that speak of loss, pain and anger across borders. Today, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Hungary, Diána Vonnák, discusses this groundbreaking project with Oksana and Max.

Diána Vonnák (DV): When I read the title of your collection, Wilfred Owen came to my mind as one of those poets who became iconic for English war poetry. He wrote this in 1918, just before he died: “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.” These claims are strong and for me they resonated with what you wrote in the preface: “Like broken furniture and mutilated bodies, these poems are traces of what had happened, as well as evidence that it did really happen.” What do you think about the relationship between poetry and war, the aesthetic and the political?

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky (OM/MR): Words for War is a provocative title. It’s also a difficult title to pull off, in that it can appear glib, easily interpreted in a hortative aspect: “Let’s get ready for war, sing some war songs, and say some war words!” For better or for worse, it’s not that kind of book. Our starting point was a series of observations: there’s a war in Ukraine, and people there think about it and talk about it. Politicians and administrators make speeches about it. Journalists and reporters cover it. It fills news channels and newspapers. Youtube users upload amateur videos from cities affected by war, and your own Facebook friends take different sides. In the streets, you see people in military uniforms; and you see civilians reacting to them, expressing a range of responses from gratitude to overt hostility. You see young men with missing limbs, with deformed faces. And then there are the endless witness reports. Because many people have been to war, and still more have been to the war zone, and they have stories to tell, and stories they prefer to be silent about. In short, war is ever-present, and it uses up a lot of words.

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On Żanna Słoniowska’s The House with the Stained Glass Window

A strikingly crafted window into how our lives are a mosaic of the things that happened before us.

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. London, England: MacLehose Press, 2017. 240 pages. £12.99.

Toward the middle of The House with the Stained Glass Window, the Ukrainian-Polish writer Żanna Słoniowska’s debut novel, the unnamed narrator tells us that her great-grandmother occasionally falls into fits of hysterical sobbing, which her grandmother explains as having to do with “the past.” “I imagined ‘the past’ as an uncontrolled intermittent blubbering,” the narrator says. This definition is not a far cry from the idea of the past portrayed in The House with the Stained Glass Window: not blubbering, but certainly not controlled by human forces, intermittently entering the present day until it infiltrates it, saturates it, and finally becomes indistinguishable from it.

The novel centers around four generations of women who live under the same roof in Lviv, in a house noted for its enormous stained glass window. The window sets the present-day plot in motion: it is because of the window that the novel’s narrator, who we only know as Marianna’s daughter, meets Mykola, her mother’s former lover, and begins an affair with him herself. A relationship like that would provide enough internal and external conflict to fill a novel to its brim, but Słoniowska does not dedicate much page space to it. Instead, if anything, the affair serves as a springboard to the past, to exploring the irresistible pull of it.

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In Review: Y.T. by Alexi Nikitin

"At the heart of Y.T. is an obvious but nonetheless suitable message. The citizens of the former Soviet Union have been hustled."

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them playing.” This is how the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga begins Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Written in 1938, just prior to the Second World War, the book might have been wholly contretemps if the author hadn’t deftly considered how combat and politics are each shot through with elements of play and gamesmanship. Who are generals and politicians if not, at least in part, overgrown boys wagering the fate of nations? The stakes were outrageous and the rules inhumane, but then, as Huizinga put it, play doesn’t need humans, enlightened humans least of all.

The cruel aspects of play are made apparent in Y.T. a recent novel by the Ukrainian Alexi Nikitin, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and published this April by Melville House. The title is an initialism, shorthand for “your turn” a term used in a strategy game developed by bored students assigned to agricultural duty in the Ukrainian countryside. The action begins in 1984. Associations with George Orwell aside, the date is an unlucky one for the narrator Alexander Davidov and his four companions. The decrepitude of the Soviet system has become all too apparent for those living within it, but the reforms of Perestroika have yet to come. The students have gone to university to study radiophysics, but this is immaterial to their job helping peasants grow apples. As city kids, the students are wholly unsuited to the task. There is nothing to be done except play cards and dine on country cooking. Better entertainment is needed. Using algorithms learned in their university studies, they partition the Soviet Union into a set of fictional entities that vie with each other for military, economic, and political supremacy. READ MORE…

Pop Around the World: the Russian Invasion of 1962

Songs of revolution and regret

Though those Russian missiles never made it over from Cuba to the US in 1962, several Russian songs did hit their targets, flourishing in foreign ears even in the permafrostiest months of the Cold War.

Perhaps the best-known Russian tune out west is “Those Were The Days,” a song based on “Дорогой длинною,” pioneered by Ukrainian-born cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky (who recorded the version embedded above) and written by Russian composer Boris Fomin to lyrics by Konstantin Podrevskii. Read in translation, the song sings of grief and of regret for past joys gone too soon:

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