Hromadske Radio: On the Image Of Jews in Modern Ukrainian Literature–Larysa Denysenko

denisenko1Larysa Denysenko is a renowned Ukrainian writer. In her novels she often talks about a Kyivan world that for her is impossible to imagine without the image of Jewish families. To illustrate this, the writer will read excerpts from her novels Sarabande of Sarah’s Band and Echoes: From the Dead Grandfather to the Deceased. We also discuss the language of hate in literature and about choosing the right vocabulary in talking about Jewish history and modern times.

The project “Encounters” was created with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Iryna Slavinska: This show is created with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and the show is dedicated to cultural exchanges between Ukrainians and Jews, their common stories, and many other themes. I personally was always greatly interested in the topic of literature because Jewish characters are very broadly represented. We can recall here Shakespeare’s works and the works of modern Ukrainian authors. We have a broad range of these authors and my companion today Larysa Denysenko is one of them. Good afternoon!

sarabandeLarysa Denysenko: Good afternoon!

Iryna Slavinska: Today Larysa came to the studio with three books. They are:Sarabande of Sarah’s Gang; New, Old Grandmother; and Echoes: From The Dead Grandfather To The Deceased. All three books somehow touch upon the topic of our talk and that is why we will probably start with this general overview. In your books, you have these characters—Jews and Jewish families—and you write a lot about Kyiv. It is probably impossible to imagine the Kyiv context without old Kyivan Jews?

Larysa Denysenko: I also cannot imagine Kyiv without Jews. When I was little and not even in school yet, I did not concentrate on nationalities and differences that much and I knew a wonderful librarian—Bronislava Romanivna—who introduced me to literature. This was very important because when a person loves something and you see this love—and it is enough for the child to see a father or a mother flipping through books—and a person lives around books, I was always amazed. It was absolutely fantastic.

Iryna Slavinska: It is magical—a woman among the stacks of books…

Larysa Denysenko: It is really magical. Moreover, when I was five years old I thought for a very long time that it is where that woman lives! I was sure it was not her job, but her house with all these books’ noises, scents, and sounds. Speaking about Kyiv, and Kyiv is mostly what I write about although Echo concerns not only Kyiv but also Zhytomyr and the Zhytomyr region, it is impossible to imagine our land without Jews. I somehow try to build the dialogues on the differences and similarities between cultures. The comic aspect of misunderstandings in relationships exists and there is a sharp humor in all of that, which I think is peculiar to Ukrainians and Jews. These are the things on whichSarabande of Sarah’s Band is built. It is about two different families and one of them is classically Jewish. Of course, there are comic moments, generalizations, and stereotyping there. Maybe there are fewer jokes, but there are enough stereotypes and some real things that I observed myself. When you start to play around some traditions, and I was trying to do this in my book very gently, this is not satire. How the family approaches intimacy is what I observed, and I see everyone has their experience in observing. What I observed from the example of Jewish families was the proximity, interest, and engagement in life. It reminds me of Italians because they are also very connected with their family ties. They expand and welcome into their circle the “stranger” because they know they are strong. This is the moment of a strong nation, the moment of strong traditions, when you are not afraid to invite in people you do not know. Because you know that despite all the challenges of life you are strong, and you can engage them, and you can accept them, and reveal and gift something to them. All this comedy in Sarabande of Sarah’s Band is about two models of the family. One family is Ukrainian and not very happy, the other one is Jewish and has some happiness in their own way. This type of happiness does not suit everyone, but I think the hero in this book was very comfortable in this environment because he needed that proximity and involvement in different family processes even though he was annoyed with them as well.

Iryna Slavinska: This book has a peculiarity in that the hero is involved in a world of family ties that he has never experienced before. He does that without any guidance from anyone who could explain that process, because his beloved Sarah is not there. Suddenly, Sarah’s entire family appears in his apartment and this is like diving into the sea.

Larysa Denysenko: There is even a dead member of the family in the bottle. This is a totally different universe with the dogs, the people, and the stories. It is awful that he constantly retells stories about innumerable relatives and friends. Pavlo, the main character, almost goes mad because of all this, but he also learns tolerance, loyalty, and the ability to laugh with someone who is totally different. I also hope that a reader will start to laugh with the character.

Iryna Slavinska: Talking about the books New, Old Grandmother and Echoes: From The Dead Grandfather To The Deceased, there are completely different types of relationships in these cultural exchanges. Let’s talk a bit about that.

Larysa Denysenko: I think I can talk about Echoes since it was very important for me. Echoes is about the idea of the victim complex and the idea of the complex of the one who is guilty. It is important to understand that these people are hurt equally. The victims and their offenders are hurt the same. We all should understand that we are people and we should take care of each other and not be afraid to become closer. In that case a lot of religious and national differences would not disappear, but they would fade. This novel dwells upon the merging of the Ukrainian and Jewish nations. I can even read a small excerpt if you do not mind.

Iryna Slavinska: I do not mind.

Larysa Denysenko: This is from one of the main characters—Marat. This is the hero Marat talking about his family:

“My mother after the death of my grandmother was sent to an orphanage, where they grew up. They were very lucky they all were sent to one orphanage and not scattered among many. When they turned sixteen they were released and their family home was returned to them. In those years nobody talked about private property and the building had stood unclaimed for years as it was so old and decrepit. The local authorities decided not to provide new housing for the orphans but to return the property of their mother and father. It did not matter that the house was unfit for habitation. Papers were issued that it was a proper residence. Passports were also issued where the surname was corrected. Those who issued passports believed in correct spelling. My mother felt the new passports provided good karma.”

Such an intersecting flow of the cultures is possible to see in this passage. I made a stereotypical last name for the character for a reason. When I was writing, I understood that it is like an ornament that you divide into some colors. Their descendants will also divide these colors, understanding that these are just different nationalities, and this is a very difficult destiny. This conscious decision to be a family is a conscious decision not because of blood, not because of heritage or anything else…this is a conscious decision to be a family and to give a push to this multinational family on the territory of Germany that is a motherland to just one of them.

Iryna Slavinska: Ukraine as a country is also an example of such an ornament that can be divided into colors because it is a big country that includes people from different nationalities. Do you as a writer see that many of your colleagues and you yourself react to these multinational challenges, to the many cultures and many languages?

Larysa Denysenko: I think that yes, it is happening. If we take, for example, my book New, Old Grandmother, one of the main characters there speaks Russian because she is an ethnic Russian who knows Ukrainian. She demonstrates this in the book, but she is very stubborn and that is why she speaks Russian in Ukrainian-speaking surroundings. By these examples I am trying to show examples of neighborly relationships—loyalty, tolerance, and mutual respect. Because for instance, if this capricious creature sees that someone addresses her in Ukrainian and requires or needs to hear Ukrainian in response, she does it. If she sees, for example, that somebody does not deserve such respect, she does not do it. This is in her nature because she is a very stubborn grandmother. As for the books of my colleagues,Tango of Death by [Yuriy] Vynnychuk. I could mention Torhovytsya by [Roman] Ivanychuk. He touches upon the Jewish topic there as well. I should also mention Maryna Hrymych’s book Frieda, where a person starts to search for and is confused by her identity. This is based on the example of the little town of Berdychiv, which is infused with Catholic as well as Jewish culture. Multiculturalism is always marked by such a flow. We can think about Black Raven by [Vasyl] Shklyar with its somewhat caricatured characters. But as a matter of fact, when a person creates a heroic-pathetic novel, it is impossible to do without that, I think. This is one of the methods in literature. I am not a big fan of the book, but I still understand why it was done in that way.

Iryna Slavinska: By the way, when I was also thinking about Black Raven as an example in preparing for our talk about the image of the Jews in Ukrainian literature, I also thought about the stylistics of something like blockbuster movies, where there is no avoiding simplification.

Larysa Denysenko: This is an example of mass literature where the enemy is very apparent. You understand him and he should be either frightening or funny. One can react approximately like that also when recalling Oksana Zabuzhko’sThe Museum Of Abandoned Secrets, where she also has a Jewish theme and Jewish characters. I cannot tell you if my younger colleagues are writing about this. I cannot remember right away if there was something about this in Tanya Malyarchuk’s books or Irena Karpa’s. I think Irena is going out into the world. She is traveling and collecting the stories of other people and I do not think she focuses on the Jewish topic. I cannot say I am focusing on this, but it turns out that there are some Jewish characters in every one of my books. They are also present in my books we are not discussing now. I think anyways when a person is writing she is producing what she saw and heard herself. And I really cannot imagine Lithuania, or a Kyivan Ukraine, and Lvivian Ukraine, or Chernivtsian Ukraine without Jews.

One more interesting episode. Recently there was a discussion about the cinema and about the image of the Ukrainian in Soviet and Russian cinema. It was very interesting when Olena Kosenko, who produced several projects at the “Ukraina” television channel, noted that a Ukrainian in Soviet movies was either some traitor or a policeman or a negative character who was greedy and obscene. I want to say here that there were also exceptions. For instance, in Bykov’s movie, where the character is marvelous, but he created this image himself.

Iryna Slavinska: That is Only Old Man are Going to Battle, with a great range of characters.

Larysa Denysenko: They are really great. I mean this is the level of attitude and propaganda and what it means. Nevertheless, we see in contemporary Russian cinema where there are also Ukrainian actors and where is formulated the image of the Ukrainian that has to be mocked. The Ukrainian as a cunning traitor. The corrupt and greedy policeman. There are Ukrainians who are disturbing to Russian cinema and they are portrayed as frightening representatives of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and of course the UPA [Editor’s note: Ukrainian Insurgent Army]. They are enemies. On the other hand, the discussion has developed somehow to the point where the nice Ukrainian becomes a Russian, as it happened with Piddubny. I think Ukrainians are not winding anyone into their identity. You can be a Jew in a Ukrainian environment without any problem. Nobody will say that if you are a good Jew you are Ukrainian and if you are a bad Jew, than you are a “zhyd” [Editors’ note: “yid”].

Iryna Slavinska: Or some other bad word.

Larysa Denysenko: There are many different words and I am not going to proclaim them now. We do not have this anyway. We are a softer and more tolerant nation. We are not trying to appropriate something, and we are not trying to drown a person in the environment we live in and turn him into something we like or do not like.

Iryna Slavinska: By the way, we already started to talk about the image of the enemy and how politically incorrect words can be used for describing this “alien” as an enemy. That is why I think I should ask about antisemitism in Ukrainian literature, if it exists. I can illustrate this question right away with the history of Tango of Death by Yuriy Vynnychuk, which prompted a wide-ranging discussion, a discussion that for some people has still not ended. This discussion is being remembered from time to time. This is a discussion about using the word “zhyd” when describing the multicultural background of Lviv in the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century. We can also talk aboutBlack Raven, mentioned above, that also provoked a discussion about antisemitism. In that work there are also Jewish characters who are negative characters and are described as enemies in a caricatured way. What do you think as a person who sees all this work from the inside? What are your observations about antisemitism in contemporary Ukrainian literature?

Larysa Denysenko: Literature is an indicator of everything that is happening in society. Because you have examples taken from historical novels, I cannot say that this reflects the situation today, where antisemitism exists or does not exist. I do not notice this. I mean, maybe it exists on some everyday level to some extent, but it will always be like that in a multicultural environment. As for Vasyl Shklyar’s novel, I think it is really a blockbuster of mass literature, where there is an enemy. But if there really is an enemy, he should be labeled with a word that describes him in a negative way. Therefore, the word “zhyd” comes up. For instance, I never write the words “zhyd” or “zhyd-hood” in my books when I write about Jews. But this is Kyiv history. When I talk with my colleagues from Galicia, many people use Polish dialect in their everyday Ukrainian language. They consciously say that when Galicia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so on, these terms were absolutely fine. But I will not agree with that.

Iryna Slavinska: The language is changing anyways…

Larysa Denysenko: Yes, and a good example of that is Felix Austria by Sofiya Andrukhovych, which is being criticized. Our society is very unique now when it comes to challenges and criticisms. She is now being criticized because she did not create an appropriate language canvas, that she avoids some words that were present at that time. But this is why there is an author, his consciousness, and an author’s position. When you keep to a dialect, to some historical speech, you should be responsible for that because modern people are reading it, people who live in our era. It is easier for me to talk about that. The Galician school is the Galician school. They have their own history. The Kyiv region and Slobozhanschyna [Editor’s note: Sloboda Ukraine, a historical territory covering part of the Kharkiv and Sumy regions of eastern Ukraine] also have their own histories and I think in principle that one should choose an intonation without hate language. But it does not mean that I can blame my colleagues when it comes to their choice of artistic methods. This is a choice, a choice for everyone. I mean I am against censorship in literature and if a person wants to explain even perhaps to himself why he can use such vocabulary, then I leave a person to his choice.

Iryna Slavinska: Now I have a question to the person who was born and lived in Kyiv. A person who starts to get interested in the history of other languages, nationalities, and cultures. There is the first moment of introduction to this other culture. What is your Kyiv story of introduction to Jewish culture and exchanges with this culture? How did it start?

Larysa Denysenko: I think it was the Puppet Theater and Babyn Yar. These are somehow two key elements. One is the architectural landmark, the synagogue that was used for other purposes, and Babyn Yar. The Babyn Yar topic was interesting because I was curious about the Second World War. I was a child who was interested in these tragedies. I can remember when I first came there with my music teacher. She told me a bit about what sort of place it was. I was very surprised that there was life all around there. And later I was very surprised the subway appeared. It was not hurtful to see, but I was surprised. But later you understand life always wins and respect perhaps should not always be demonstrative. Nor should it always be quiet and mournful. As for the puppet theater, there is also some history and in adulthood I realized that this change was not a crusade against Jews. It was a crusade of communists against religion in general. We have a church that was once a planetarium.

Iryna Slavinska: And another one is a chamber music hall.

Larysa Denysenko: I, for example, was never embarrassed by it. I think such a combination is organic. I remember how my grandmother related to this because she often attended those concerts as she would a mass. She did not articulate this and I did not understand any of this in my childhood. But it was preserved as an architectural monument. We have many historical and religious places all over the country that were transformed into something else, even into warehouses, hospitals, and, in some better cases, into different playgrounds, Pioneer buildings, etc. These reflect the relations between communist ideology with another ideology. I don’t think these reflect relations among people—Jews or Ukrainians.

Iryna Slavinska: To finish this discussion, can you please read some pieces from Sarabande of Sarah’s Band?

Larysa Denysenko: You know the most unpleasant thing about comedies is that when you read excerpts, you absolutely do not understand why it is funny. That is why it is hard to choose something, but I think I will read one piece. This is actually the meeting of the main male character with the parents of the main female character.

“Sara’s father reminded me of the joyful and life-loving characters from the films of Emir Kusturica. From time to time he would sing something. He would never apologize and start singing again. And his fingers danced in the air or on some surface. He twirled a cigar between his fingers. I regarded the face of Sara’s father and my own father in two portraits under the same title “Father.” My father looked more “fatherly.” For the title under Sara’s father’s portrait you would want to write “Esteemed Artist of Moldova” or Bartok.

Sara’s mother looked like a girl on a seesaw. She seesawed so quickly it was difficult to pin down her looks. This was very strange as Sara’s mother was a large woman. But I only managed to perceive her in fragments. She had a tenor voice. Her hairstyle resembled a black moon. I noticed her skirt was too short for such a form and age. In any case I had it easier with them than with my own parents. It seemed that they were completely satisfied with me. But most of all they were completely satisfied with one another and with life.”

Sarabande of Sarah’s Band. Larysa Denysenko, we conclude our discussion for “Encounters.” I would like to remind you that this project on “Hromadske Radio” is possible with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. We were talking about cultural and literature exchanges and Jewish characters in Ukrainian literature. We will continue this topic, and not only this topic, in the future as well. Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio, and you listened to “Hromadske Radio.” Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger