Distance launch of Sofia Andrukhovych’s novel Amadoka at the Mystetskyi Arsenal

The launch of Sofia Andrukhovych’s just-published novel Amadoka was supposed to take place at the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Art and Culture Museum Complex on 21 March 2020. Over two hundred people were expected at this event that was to be moderated by the director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal, Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta. Owing to the quarantine, the launch had to be cancelled. However, the Mystetskyi Arsenal decided not to cancel Ostrovska-Liuta’s meeting with Andrukhovych and recorded their conversation and stroll through the premises of the Arsenal. The Old Lion Publishing House presented the Arsenal with the first copies of the book, which Sofia Andrukhovych held in her hands for the first time.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: I must tell you that it was a source of immense pride and my privilege to read your book back in autumn. And here we are, you and I, finally seeing it in the flesh. Here are two bookmarks, so that I could read from any place! And this image that the Agrafka Art Studio (the book illustrators Roman Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv) used for the cover—a smashed face; this symbol runs throughout the book.

First, I will describe this novel. The plot revolves around a couple: a man and a woman. The man has lost his memory during today’s Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas. The woman, supposedly his wife, is helping him recover his memory. But in the process, you gradually come to realize that this woman is not helping him recover his memory but is creating a new one: new memories, a new reality, a new family, the context in which he had supposedly been raised. This man, his name is Bohdan, has lost not just his memory. He regains consciousness in Kyiv; he doesn’t remember anything. The reader grasps that he is a soldier who survived a battle and came out of this battle without his memory and with a disfigured face. Very slowly, he supposedly emerges from nothingness.

Sofia Andrukhovych: With a kind of reluctance. He doesn’t really want to return to this world.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: Then a woman, whose name is Romana, appears in the book. She works in the Archival Museum at St. Sophia of Kyiv. And gradually these two cross paths supposedly randomly, and she begins to realize that this is her lost husband, reported missing in action.

Sofia Andrukhovych: For whom she waited for a very long time and finally finds him, recognizes him. This is one of the main ideas of the novel that I worked on and played with (or both, simultaneously): the theme of love. How much love can do, what it can inspire, to what extent it may be dangerous and destructive. Incidentally, I already worked with this in my novel Felix Austria. It is simply that here I resolved this completely differently: I used more approaches and directions. It starts with the idea that the power of Romana’s love is so great that she can recognize this man; what no one else can do. Even he himself cannot recognize himself. But she recognizes intuitively that this is her husband for whom she waited and searched for such a long time. And now she is not planning to let him go.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: When I was reading it, I asked myself the question: “Does she really love him?” It seems obvious that she loves him because she suffers from many problems and difficulties because of this. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be love. And this ambivalence—the ambivalence of people, their characters, these circumstances that turn out be different from what you thought at the beginning. Finally, the ambivalence, the diversity of human nature, especially in complicated circumstances; it is extraordinary in your novel.

I will return to Bohdan and Romana. Of course, they are obviously metaphors in and of themselves. What are these metaphors?

Sofia Andrukhovych: There is a situation here with metaphors. I’m not sure that it is correct for me to decode these metaphors. After all, I embedded them so that every reader could read and interpret them in his or her own way. Without a doubt, there are many metaphors in the novel. And the characters are metaphors, and the situations are metaphors; and some traits of these heroes, each of them; and this external disfigurement, of which there is a lot, not just in Bohdan’s case—we encounter them again and again. For example, Romana has a very large scar on her back, which has a terrible story behind it. All these external defects, they are a metaphor for something a little different. In my view, this metaphor concerns each of us. That by his nature, a person, right after being born and over the course of his or her upbringing, over the course of his or her development experiences various deformations—from parents, from family, from their surroundings, from situations in which s/he ends up. And these deformations define and form them. They define their way of thinking and conduct. The factors of such a deformation are the historical events that are recounted in the novel; in particular, the Holocaust, the Second World War, the Stalinist terror, or, for example, what we have right now: the situation connected to the spread of the virus or the war in the east, which is one of the main plotlines in Amadoka.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: This war seems to be present the entire time, but this is not a war in which you are immersed. It is a historical and psychological reality, with everything taking place against this background, roughly the way many Ukrainian cities live. You don’t see it in direct physical proximity, but this is the background of your existence.

When I was thinking about Bohdan, it seems to me that this is a metaphor (this is my interpretation as a reader) for society itself, which bears a lot of scars. These scars make it diverse, on the one hand, and very disharmonious, on the other. It is also a society that has a lot of lacunar amnesia, if not total lack of memory. And here we have Romana, who in my view, is a metaphor for literature; it is a way of working with memory. However, the immense danger that you talked about appears here. Literature, which is so in love with society and history, which can do so much to make the past pleasant, it changes it; sometimes it gives it false memories.

Sofia Andrukhovych: Yes, false interpretations. I agree with how you see this. You also said that you doubt the love between Romana and Bohdan. The many plotlines in this novel concern people’s constant search for love; at the same time, the failure or the inability to act correctly with this love. In other words, we do not see examples (with the exception, possibly, of Viktor Petrov [Domontovych] and Sophia Zerova), where people treat love directly and simply, with such care, as we dream about this. In most cases, these quests for love lead, on the contrary, to some catastrophes and very sad consequences. And when we immerse ourselves in the history of the relationship between Romana and Bohdan, it might seem that this is a story about some kind of sadomasochistic relationship and that the victim is Romana because she suffers physically at the hands of this man. He is traumatized, not just physically but also psychologically, and he has sudden outbursts when he cannot control himself at all. Because of this, she experiences difficulties, but the farther we read, the more we begin to doubt this.

If you look at them, at these characters, as metaphors, then for me, Romana truly is not a person at all. I allude to this repeatedly in the novel. But I should not like to answer this question unambiguously because I know that, on the one hand, her story is very intriguing and one very much wants to find out, to answer the question, “Who is she? What happened to her? Why is she doing this?” There are many such allusions and paths and clues that seem about to lead us to the answer. And what will happen in the finale? I know that some readers will be fascinated by it, but some will be very disappointed and frustrated. This is the very reason that novels are written—and for creativity in general: to elicit various feelings and pose some questions.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: We are talking a lot about Bohdan and Romana, but this is just a framing story. This is a story that frames many, many other stories, for example, the story of Uliana and Pinchas. This is another plotline that takes place in the town of Buchach before and during the Holocaust. You mentioned the immediacy of love. Between Uliana and Pinchas, this takes place when they are children.

Sofia Andrukhovych: Yes, this is the period of their evolving relations when they are entirely pure and direct. And until a certain point in time, they are not influenced either by cultural or national traits, the prohibitions of various milieus in this town. However, this does not last for long. Next, we see how this pure relationship begins to be poisoned and how it experiences traumas and increasingly more deformations.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: These are the heroes who are searching for Amadoka, the plotline of which is connected to the title. It seems to me that Uliana is vivid proof of a great love that turns into a great tragedy, which you mention. But during this entire time Uliana is completely defined by love. Finally, Uliana is Bohdan’s grandmother, so love also defines his love.

Sofia Andrukhovych: Yes, this is also what I wanted: to show how one person’s act can influence people around him/her and subsequent generations. We see what the history of these relations are like: between a little Ukrainian girl and a little Jewish boy, between two families, Ukrainian and  Jewish, a tragedy that happened during the Holocaust, the attempt to save the life of another person, perhaps valuing this other life more than one’s own; but, despite this, the inability to do anything. How this transgression is layered not only onto the life of the person who survived, but also onto the lives of her children and her grandchildren and the people who are involved in this entire story, regardless of the fact that these people no longer remember or know—no one recounted this story—but they continue to act according to a certain program that is embedded in them without their knowledge.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: You say that this is Uliana’s tragedy, but perhaps it’s even the tragedy of Vasyl Frasuliak, Uliana’s father. He is a very ambivalent figure. On the one hand, he works for a Jewish family and, on the other, he becomes a policeman during the Holocaust. And in a parallel fashion, he kills and saves those same people. For me, this was an absolutely striking way to describe how circumstances can alter people’s actions. And this leads you to think that you don’t know how you would act. You think that you are a good, moral, ethical person, but you have no idea what a person can do in difficult circumstances. What is interesting is that, despite the polarity of his actions, Vasyl Frasuliak leaves the feeling that he is a good hero. There is Viktor Petrov (Domontovych), for example, to whom you dedicated an incredible essay within your novel. I don’t understand what he is like. In your novel, this mysterious figure of Ukrainian history is neutral. The way you describe these people forces us to think about how fragile and ambiguous human nature is and how you can never say with any exactitude: “This person is good, and this person is bad.”

Sofia Andrukhovych: This shows how much we are mistaken in most cases, where we try to form some kind of judgement about a person, about his/her actions in one circumstance or another. The way these characters came out in my novel likely attests to my own attitude to them, as I was describing the very different features of their characters and their actions, without turning any of them into some kind of one-dimensional character, unambiguously negative or unambiguously positive.

Nevertheless, I had an initial attitude, and perhaps I sympathized sincerely with Vasyl Frasuliak. And that’s why, despite his horrible actions, at the end of the day, we see that essentially this person was good. When we look at Vasyl Frasuliak’s motives, there is never some unambiguous motive. He does not try to become a hero and save lives. Nor does he try to conform to a particular ideology that claims that he must kill people of a certain nationality. He acts according to local circumstances, yes. We see how these circumstances determine his actions without emotion. He still wants to help, but in many cases, such assistance represents a danger to his life and the life of his family. And that is why he submits and chooses the path of murder. But at the same time, he personally knows the people whose relatives he is killing. And in the moments when he can help, he helps.

As for Viktor Petrov, I took great care here to ensure that this image remained as unfathomable as possible. I think that I succeeded in doing this. If in revealing as many aspects as possible that can be revealed, which came out of research, from a reading of his texts, of texts written by literary historians, from some reminiscences about him, you lay out all this in front of you, then you see just a lot of mutually exclusive images. I tried to lay this out, like a game of solitaire. When we pull on one thread, one image appears before us. When we pull on another thread, we suddenly see someone completely different. For example, he is the kind of intellectual who can endlessly ponder topics related to archaeology, historiography, or philosophy. Suddenly, at a certain moment, he turns out to be a secret police agent. In some descriptions, we seem him as a refined, gallant cavalier; in others, as an awkward teddy bear or very unpleasant person who constantly insults people. And I tried to pull as many of these descriptions as possible, in order to show that, ultimately, we cannot know what kind of person he was. And, truly, we cannot know anything certain about any person.

This brings us back to what you already said about history or literature, about the image of Romana, who transmits Bohdan’s memories to him, and about our doubt. To what extent can we trust this literature or history, this narrative? We need memories, but how can we be certain of the veracity of this narrative? And how can we choose this narrative? How can we form it so that it corresponds to reality? We are constantly getting lost in these various accents and in attempts to weave one myth or another. This is also about what I had in mind in Amadoka: not so much about history as about various ways to recount it.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: This is about the lack of finality of any kind of judgement of a person or history or circumstances.

Sofia Andrukhovych: Yes, yes.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: It’s never the last word.

Sofia Andrukhovych: I believe that becoming aware of this really helps us remain in some sort of harmony and balance. You realize that you are not able to have a full picture of reality, and this helps us avoid glaring mistakes. When you are too strongly driven by a certain image or a certain idea, you become insensitive to other people.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: Or you risk becoming terribly disillusioned. But let’s go back to the title, Amadoka. This is what Uliana and Pinchas are looking for. What is it?

Sofia Andrukhovych: Amadoka is a lake that supposedly existed on the territory of Ukraine, although at the time, Ukraine did not exist. Amadoka is mentioned by Herodotus in one of his histories, in one of the volumes. We know that there are many fantasies on various topics in Herodotus, and very likely Amadoka is one of these fantasies. If we are to believe Herodotus, then Amadoka was the largest lake in Europe, with an area spanning over one hundred square kilometers. This lake appeared on maps of cartographers who clearly had read Herodotus’s history and tried to picture something based on his words. It is unlikely that any one of them ever reached it and saw this lake with their very own eyes. Thus it wandered from map to map until finally, sometime in the seventeenth century, if I’m not mistaken, it disappeared. No one really knows if it ever existed.

Pinchas is a very gifted little boy. He studies at the general gymnasium, and he also visits his Jewish tutor, Melamed, with whom he apprehends the subtleties of Jewish religious scholarship and various ancient writers. He is very curious and talented; he is constantly jotting something down in his notebook. For him, Amadoka is one of those romantic dreams. He came across this description somewhere in the writings of Herodotus, copies various maps, and tries to find the traces of this lake. The lake was located somewhere on the border of Podillia, Volyn, and Galicia. There are a great many lakes, small lakes, and marshes in those regions, and they may be considered the extant traces of Amadoka. And Pinchas brings Uliana there in order to show her his discoveries and tell her about this legend.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: The image of something great that is in the past, and we are trying to locate this great thing today.

Sofia Andrukhovych: Something that is very tangible but at the same time, invisible. Something that defines our lives today but, at the same time, is ill-defined. I think that fumbling around for images of this lake with all caution is something that each of us would benefit from doing.

However, a question arises here. Obviously, it is very beneficial and necessary to recall and to restore what has been forgotten or expunged. This is about memories from the times of the Stalinist terror. They were expunged because any mention of this was dangerous to people’s lives. Memories of the Holocaust are memories that were rejected out of feelings of guilt, a bit for other reasons, but all these are protective mechanisms, thanks to which we are alive today. And here’s another question: On the one hand, we cannot know who we are completely if we do not remember previous actions, our actions or the actions of our predecessors. But on the other, this memorylessness also makes us us, and this is what helped us to survive. And where is the boundary between this remembering and forgetting? At what moment should we stop so that this remembering does not ruin us? A large part of these memories is rejected precisely because, otherwise, these memories would simply ruin the lives of the people who survived.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: At this point, I want to shift to the final episode in the book: the talk show in which Romana and Bohdan take part. At the same time, this talk show turns out to be an instrument for two things: an instrument for discovering the truth, on the one hand, and on the other, the farcification of the truth. As a result, this truth becomes vulgar; it is what reveals and hides it simultaneously. How do you view this latter aspect? How do you interpret it?

Sofia Andrukhovych: What you just said resonates with me a lot. For me, it has to do with this question: To what extent is this truth necessary if there is such an unhealthy excitement around it, which already distorts what it is with its energy? This line, this offshoot—to me, it symbolizes some current processes connected with social media, with this multitude and multiplicity of various truths, with what is called post-truth today; for example, when a person can get lost among various versions of truth and can agree with every truth that is proposed to him/her depending on the emotional responses provoked by social media.

There is a grotesque and comical moment in the situation that crops up with Bohdan and Romana, when what Romana is posting on social media turns into some sort of symbol for a whole lot of people. They become attached to this symbol and are not ready to reject their imaginings. Then the apogee of this situation unfolds during a television show, where we see Bohdan’s story exposed, but to the very end, we cannot understand who among these witnesses is really telling the truth and who is just recounting his fantasies.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: We have now talked about so much, but this is just a small fraction of these subjects, plotlines, and stories that are in the novel. We still haven’t talked very much about Skovoroda, about Pinsel, about Zerov and his wife, about Viktor Petrov (Domontovych); about the Baal Shem Tov, who has a big chunk devoted to him. Amadoka is in fact a panoramic novel, a huge [mechanical] fan with many circumstances, situations, characters, historical events, or connections. It is no wonder that weighs 1.1 kilograms; truly a very big novel. But I must say that, as a reader, I read it on my cell phone, and it was very awkward.

Sofia Andrukhovych: Thank you very much for your patience and perseverance!

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: I didn’t read it because I am perseverant and patient, but because I was captivated! It is very interesting to read, apart from the fact that it is profound! This is one of those novels that you think about later and interpret.

Finally, I would like to touch upon the aspect of craft: how the story is constructed and what the instrument of this construction is. Romana’s memories of Bohdan are supported by two suitcases of photographs; old photos taken in the late 1940s until the present day. You told me that for you, one such instrument was your acquaintance with the works of Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit. At the Mystetskyi Arsenal last year, we put on an exhibit called “Overcoming Gravity,” about Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit, and this aspect struck me as very interesting: How is culture built? A work is created, and this work is a trampoline to the next work. Are there other things like this in the novel, which inspired you?

Sofia Andrukhovych: In the case of Paraska Plytka’s photographs, it was funny because I had forgotten about this influence. When the show opened at the Mystetskyi Arsenal, that was when I suddenly remembered how it was. I had come across a long article with photographs. In this article, I was most touched by the image of this village woman, who had lived through very difficult circumstances, and despite this (or precisely because of this), she remained devoted to her several hobbies. Of course, the fact that she was making these books by hand-—these are all amazing things. But I was charmed by the photography aspect, where such an ordinary village woman, who is not very educated, suddenly discovers the technique and ability to take photographs. And she simply records many everyday moments. I was captivated by this and, clearly, I forgot about this. I displaced this factor somehow; it receded to other spheres of consciousness.

The process of creating the story took a long time; I realized somehow that I should have a character who is a photographer who has created many such mementoes, documenting these instants. I told myself constantly that I would be criticized for this unconvincing image because it is very far-fetched, I would be pulling people’s legs, that such a simple woman is constantly toting this camera, these rolls of film and manifestations—especially since in reality this could not exist in Ukraine.

It was only later, once the novel was written and at the editing stage, that I learned that an exhibit had opened at the Mystetskyi Arsenal, and suddenly I remembered that this image was not completely far-fetched.

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: That’s a very interesting remark about the nature of creativity; how you yourself don’t know the sources!

Sofia Andrukhovych: Yes, and there are many of these sources. Of course, targeted steps are aimed at researching individual topics. Where the Holocaust is concerned, I read the works of historians. Perhaps one of the main sources was not so much reminiscences, memoirs, eyewitness testimonies—although they were very important, no doubt about it. In order to form some sense connected above all with the ambivalence that we were talking about, essays on these topics are what helped me tremendously. For example, the work of Philippe Sands or the writings of Primo Levi on the Holocaust. There were many such sources. But despite this, I was constantly collecting something, consciously or unconsciously, from everything that I came across at a given time: from films that I had seen, from books, or simply from conversations. When I start recalling, I’ll tell you [laughter].

Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta: Thank you, Sofia Andrukhovych! This was a very interesting conversation!

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @ Mystetskyi Arsenal

Sofia Andrukhovych participated in the 2017 literary residency that is run by the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach (Ukraine) and is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

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