Kateryna Petrovska was born in Kyiv. She’s a daughter of Kyiv-based litterateur and local lore student Myron Petrovsky. She graduated from philology department of the University of Tartu. She has been residing in Berlin since 1999. As a free journalist she has worked for radio stations Multi-Kulti, Deutsche Welle, Liberty, RBB, and WDR. She is a contributor to different Ukrainian, Russian, and German publications.
In summer at the Festival of German-Language Literature (in Klagenfurt) Kateryna won one of the most prestigious literary awards in Germany, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, for her debut novel Vielleicht Esther.
The Day talked to Kateryna about her book, the paradoxes of language transitions, traps of historic time, and the Maidan.
How has your life changed after you won the award?
“In fact, the situation is very ridiculous. I had known nothing about the literature institutes of Germany; meanwhile it is a powerful industry with huge book fairs held in Leipzig and Frankfurt which bring colossal incomes and have a very serious presence in the media and economic space. I found myself there by accident. Being unaware of the country’s literary and publishing processes, I suddenly become a notable person owing to the victory in a competition, about which I had only heard, because of these 16 pages of text I read aloud, even if it is only five minutes of glory. I will repeat myself: it’s very ridiculous, because people immediately started calling me either a Ukrainian writer, although I haven’t written a word in Ukrainian since school, or a German writer, although German is not my native language. And the book was not ready then. In spite of all of my attempts to convince the reviewers that this is not a novel about the year 1941 in Kyiv, simply a series of short stories about a modern person, who stumbles over the past an unending number of times, and that this is not purely a literary phenomenon, rather a phenomenon simply connected with literature, nobody believed me. I don’t exclude the possibility that namely lack of skill, imperfect narration and language, this stumbling produced an effect on the public and the jury. Before the book was finished, it was sold to 10 countries, based on these 16 pages, and now – to 15 countries.”
But this is success, isn’t it?
“You see, what happened to me did not have any springboard. All of a sudden from a close, small circle of friends you get into the media space. This is a very ambivalent feeling, which is probably similar to losing innocence. I have been residing in Germany for a long while, I have a column in a big newspaper (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), and people must be reading me, but at the moment I feel like a Gogol inspector, I am interviewed in the press about everything, this is some kind of Khlestakov bragging. This is namely the reason why this situation is so ridiculous and awkward. I am beyond the danger of getting an unnecessary notion about myself and the world. I am trying to say: ‘Stop. I am not an inspector; I am on a drive-by visit.’”
Anyway, could you tell us about the book?
“I was nominated for the award of the Leipzig Book Fair. Honestly, I don’t feel anything at all, because the situation with Ukraine and the Crimea has overridden everything, and it seems some inadequate luxury to me to speak about the book, as if we contemplate over the peculiarities of weather, when we are being attacked by a tank. However, my father has explained to me recently in detail that the world now is experiencing the confrontation connected with the Crimea similar to the Caribbean crisis of 1963, and we all are within a hair’s breadth of the Third World War. When I asked him what to do and where to run, he said at first we need to heal the cold. This is what they, the children of the Second World War, are like. By the way, it’s very strange. I wrote about the Second World War almost being ashamed that it cannot stop for me, and here reality takes the lead over literature. Probably, in idealistic terms, this is a serious literary feeling, when you let go something, and it goes to other people, they read it, and you think, what a nightmare. Of course, there is an element of fashion: Ukraine, Jewish-Soviet topic, and why this person writes in German, when she does not have a good enough command of the language?”
True, why in German?
“That was a kind of romantic choice of language, which you will never be able to learn fully, and as much romantic striving for the language. Because it’s about my family, a documentary narration. Probably, the only invented element in this book is the German language, for there was no need to write in German, but suddenly it began to sound.”
Will it be translated?
“It was written for the German audience, for absolutely different context. I don’t know what will happen if it is translated back into Russian. I started to write some texts in Russian, and as a result wrote them in a different language. So, there was a need not to understand fully what you wrote and in what tradition it got: in Russian I understand what I do, and in German – not. And this is extremely attractive. So, at the moment I have not decided yet whether to make an authorized translation or write another book. In Russian it is in fact non-fiction, but in German only for the reason that the language itself to some extent turns into a function-fiction, because it is not clear who tells it, a Russian or a German, this post-Soviet documentation becomes literature.”
In other words, the German language in such a paradoxical way estranges the author from the text?
“Yes, when the language is changed, namely estrangement takes place. Excuse me for being immodest, but this is in the manner of Becket: it is not quite clear who is speaking, who is this individuality.”
So, it is not clear whether it will be translated.
“I have been invited to the Book Arsenal to Kyiv as a German writer. We have a ridiculous situation: here I am a German writer, and in Berlin – a Ukrainian one. It seems to me, it’s easier to become a German writer than simply a writer. Much has been determined by the problem of the interlocutor. When I found myself in Germany and started to write, I had a rough notion of who I wanted to talk to: a German of the same age with me who grew in a certain place, etc. In this sense it is not clear how to translate the book, because there is a language game, an internal tension, internal, mildly speaking, timidity of a person before the German language which she learned very late. Besides, when you write the Soviet-Ukrainian-Jewish story in Russian with a clear attitude to Babyn Yar, in the Russian language the standpoints of the victim and the executioner, as well as the right to victory are implicated. If you do the same in German, the language crutches which put accents and create predictability suddenly disappear, which generates this very strange effect when you are not dealing with the problem of whose fault it was, but with an absolutely different problem of identification. So, you take a historical collision and make the person plunge into an existential situation in present time. There I tell many stories as if they are taking place nowadays.”
Yet the text is about the past?
“There are many chapters. The book consists of short stories dedicated to separate characters, and there are chimerical moments, many variegated plots, most often purely reflexive material, when not as much the story is told as the contemplations over what you should do with it and why it fell out of your hands namely at this moment. The only chapter written according to the rules of classic story is about Babyn Yar. There is a chapter about my relative shot at a German envoy in Moscow a week before the German elections in 1932. There is a chapter about Poland, stories of the later 19th century about teachers of deaf-and-mute children, a chapter about Babyn Yar. However, the book is not about the past, rather about why we need it now, why we are stumbling at it all the time, and in a certain sense this book is about the way of standing in a line. There is no line, but still it is present. Or about neighbors. What occurs to people who find themselves next to one another in the moments of violence? These are travels across wonderful Austria, where my grandfather stayed in different camps – first in a camp for prisoners of war, and then in Mauthausen. You go across this country and reveal not only wonderful landscapes, but also wonderful people. Actually, this is what I am talking about: how much of war is present in our time, and how much of our time is present in the war. I think, in Kyiv it is especially clear now. On a sunny day we sit in our kitchens and chat, and not far from us something terrible is happening or has already happened. The same thing is with the war, only it’s vice versa. It resembles Bruegel’s picture Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
“I tell about feelings and driving forces of ordinary people, even if at the same time I simply refer to the letters of my friends or Facebook posts. In other words, in my stories about Ukraine I represent an ordinary person who was suddenly given the floor.”
“By the way, I will mention here British psychologist Oliver Sacks who deals with the problem of impossibility of memories. The idea is that there is no objectivity of memories and that the memory exists at the moment of recalling. I am awfully forgetful. Where there is a lack of memory, imagination begins, and as a result, a mistake. There are many mistakes in the book, although I wanted to write only the truth. I confuse something, but I reflect on this confusion. I am probably the first person in Germany who wrote in a literary text the word ficus with K, – Fikus.”
Why did you need this mistake?
“Because fiction will be Fiktion – in this way a ficus gives way to literature. So, this is a claim to mistake which gives way to literature, at the same time nothing was invented in the book. I contemplated over almost all of the mistakes: where the boundaries of this slight self-delusion are, why I want to imagine it in this way. For example, I tried to imagine the last, the most awful camp, where my grandfather stayed – the branch of Mauthausen in the forest – where Hungarian Jews were sent two weeks before the end of the war. My grandfather returned 40 years after the war, in 1982. My childhood legend says that grandfather came home, lived with us for half a year, and died. The rest is an attempt to understand what happened, why he did not come back earlier: the story is not about the last camp, rather about the fact that in the USSR there were 20 million more women than men. So, I found the documents about this camp in a Viennese archive and at some point understood that I could not look at them: first, I was scared; second, these people had nothing in common with my book, they were another frightful story of the wartime, these stories are endless. However, I started to photocopy these documents, and as a result wrote about the impossibility to cope with this material, the impossibility to tell how these people walked for 50 kilometers and what happened to Austrian villagers who saw this. I could not write this extract for three years. And only when I wrote it… Do you know what is German translation of photocopier?”
“Kopiergeraet. Geraet means on the whole all instruments, machines, etc. And what is German translation of the word ‘saved’? Gerettet. No German will confuse these words. And I use them from such an angle that I don’t see difference between German ‘a’ and ‘e.’ So, I came up to a photocopier and started copying the documents as if trying to rescue these people. I understood this only when I wrote the fragment about this. How can it be translated into a different language? The plot will disappear. Many things emerged in such a way. I did something within the German language; only a person from a different culture can write such strange things.”
Although you’re skeptical about your popularity, but your words about Ukraine will probably find much broader audience in Germany now?
“Since December I have been practically fighting for Ukraine – I use my five minutes of fame in newspapers, on radio, in talk-shows, in interviews. At first I thought it was incorrect, because I am not an expert on Ukraine, but after the first wave of violence in the end of November I stopped caring about this, for owing to my new situation I was able to articulate here things which are apparent for us, but not for Germans. I tell about feelings and driving forces of ordinary people, even if at the same time I simply refer to the letters of my friends or Facebook posts. In other words, in my stories about Ukraine I represent an ordinary person who was suddenly given the floor.”
What was your strongest impression from the Maidan?
“I was in Kyiv at the beginning of February after the five deaths, and even before the hundred people were killed I felt that the line was crossed. The Maidan and adjacent blocks is my childhood area. For 10 years I have sung in the Shchedryk Chorus in Zhovtnevy Palace, when 100-year-old chestnuts were still growing on the side of the hill. In Liuteranska Street there are barricades, but this is the way I used to go to school. Everything is very powerful, but most of all I was astonished by the people. This is a picture from some kind of social utopia. That is why the situation of the Maidan is strange for an outsider, when the myths which could have killed one another for some reason have united and stand together. Ukrainian antagonistic systems of values are for some reason defending one another.”
What do you mean?
“It’s purely optical feeling when you pass through six control points to the Ukrainian Home and all of a sudden find yourself in a student hipster environment. It is clear that there have been many revolutions when people with those faces who stood at the entrance later swept away people who were inside. But they are guarding them. That is an impressive situation. And there is a feeling, maybe a utopian one, but there is something that can be called a people. In Germany during the unification there was a motto ‘We are the people.’ And here as well there is a different register of life. I am trying to articulate this in Berlin that current events in Kyiv are thousand times more Europe than us, sitting in warm rooms.