A future novel and the vogue for mysticism: Makhno, Chupa, and Kononenko on the Buchach residency program

The residency for writers, essayists, and translators organized by the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach has already taken place twice. Over the course of a week, participants are invited to reside in the city where Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature, was born and spent his youth. Residents familiarize themselves with locations the writer described in his texts, as well as with the texts themselves. They track the city's contemporary culture and share their thoughts in essays that are then translated into Hebrew and English and published as a separate collection by the organizers of the Center.

One quarantine year after the literary residency in Buchach and the launch of the collection Light on the Hills, Chytomo interviewed Oleksii Chupa, Yevhenia Kononenko, and Vasyl Makhno, who talked about the residency as a Galician resort, the vogue for Jewish mysticism, and a forthcoming Ukrainian novel with episodes about Buchach and Agnon.

Vasyl Makhno, prose writer, poet, and winner of the 2020 ‘Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize’ ™

The residency in Buchach enables both writers and readers to look at the city with new eyes, relatively speaking, at its cultural landscape. For an author, this is an opportunity to feel or comprehend another space, and for his audience—to gain a deeper sense than that which the inhabitants see there every day. A unique connection happens between the city and the word, and the residency promotes such a rapprochement.

The accents that are focused on a small city's multiculturalism—in our case, Buchach and the literary achievements of Shmuel Agnon—uncover an extraordinarily fascinating space that has not been completely described and deciphered. The tradition that was established by Agnon in depicting this place in his novels or short stories should, in my opinion, be developed in Ukrainian literature as well. The residency is a stimulus for this work.

I can say that in the new novel that I am working on right now, episodes involving both Buchach and Agnon will be essential. For the most part, people today do not perceive Agnon in his time, like Taras Shevchenko, for example. However, it is precisely his period that is the motivation behind his behavior. The narrative will unfold in four cities: Buchach, Jerusalem, Bad Homburg, and Ternopil, in past and current projections. Chapters about Agnon and three biblical chapters will serve as a supplement; in other words, as an application.

The residency served as an impetus, but the novel is not about either Agnon or Buchach. For me, the issue is about understanding confrontation, in the normal sense, and the misunderstandings between Christianity and Judaism, as well as about the tangle of ethnic and cultural nuances through the example of the main hero.

Oleksii Chupa, prose writer, poet, and founder of Donetsk Slam

You can't expect an answer from me that no, you don't need a residency program. The formation of a cultural landscape is important for the formation of a state vision. Buchach is one of a handful of examples of a small city where many ethnic and cultural components are blended successfully. And the primary thing is that there is a certain purity to Buchach.

Quite a few people who lived in Kharkiv, in Lviv, and Franyk [Ivano-Frankivsk—Trans.] created this landscape, and they are well known to the broader public. Meanwhile, the residency in Buchach is in fact an experiment. Here, literature is represented by Agnon and architecture by [Johann Georg] Pinsel, two names on which a durable framework for communication with residents, readers, and sponsors is built. This is cool information, but not blurred. The resident gains a clear—as opposed to a conditional—vision: "During the second half of the nineteenth century, countless numbers of artists who belonged to the Polish, Jewish, German, and Ukrainian communities created their art in these lands. We do not know their names, but they existed, and we are happy about that."

As the now fashionable expression goes, you plug into the resident's role, but not for long. You know that you are carrying out concrete work on a project, and this allows you to calculate internal, temporal, and other resources optimally. In this lies the uniqueness of the literary residency in Buchach: You dive in but not so much that later you want to take up something else. For me, this is a fabulous vacation for the mind. You arrive at a Galician resort, you relax morally and intellectually, and even live with memories for a time. If you ask me right now—and it's been half a year since I lived in Buchach—then my impressions have been erased; what I have left are impressions of impressions.

I remember that the first text was really difficult because I had been tuning into cities and their milieus for a very long time. I caught the note on the third or fourth day, and then I spent a month and a half in this mood. At that very time, the essays that were later included in the collection Light on the Hills were written.

When I saw this book, when I was holding it in my hands, I thought that the Polish language was missing. Not that without it the project is not whole, but in the sense the English language seems more superfluous than Polish. For that reason, I also have in mind and think in the context of that epoch on which the theme of the residency is built. I perceive the Ukrainian and Hebrew languages fittingly, but it would not be a bad thing to add the Polish language. I don't know how much this dovetails with the vision of the authors and the organizers of the residency program.

Yevhenia Kononenko, writer and translator from the English and the French

After the launch of the literary residency program, especially the collection, at the Israeli Cultural Center “Nativ” in Kyiv, it was suggested to me that I learn Hebrew. Of course, this significantly expanded my horizons. I can even read something from the Holy Scriptures, and this means [feeling] totally different senses and is an incredible experience. I think that people who know Hebrew will read with interest Ukrainian writers' essays about a city that was once Jewish and is now Ukrainian. History quite often redraws borders.

As for the concept of the collection, I have read various authors' impressions of one particular city, Yerevan, for example, and it was interesting. But Buchach is a city that is always with you, pardon the banal cliché.

For me, a prolonged immersion in the works of Shmuel Agnon, a profound writer, albeit a hermetic one, was the most important result of the residency in Buchach. It was fascinating to discover the Buchach theme in his texts.

Nearly two years have passed since I attended the residency program, but I still have not completely determined whether Agnon was a Hasid. On the surface, this information does not exist, but it looks as though if he was, then he was not an Orthodox Hasid. Nowhere is he depicted wearing a Hasidic hat, even though he lived for many years in Israel, where it is visually evident when a Hasid passes by. Perhaps he changed his views.

The first text by Shmuel Agnon that I read earlier was the complex and intriguing novel The Bridal Canopy in a Russian translation. Considering that I am practically not connected to Judaism in any way, this text intrigued me. Currently, many non-Jewish people are interested in Jewish mysticism; there is a vogue. For example, in Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob, these questions are also raised. Agnon was a staunch Jew, but he outgrew the limitations of Hasidism, as I felt; he was a personality that lived in the tradition, but at the same time, he was broader than the tradition.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Читомо

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.