When asked whom I would interview for the New Year/ Christmas issue of the newspaper, the name of Ivan Malkovych came to my mind almost at once. The director of the famous Ukrainian publishing house for children “from 2 to 102 years old” A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA and poet (who wrote Poems for winter), he, like no other, fits in with the winter fairytale. I had no doubts that he would have something to say about the holidays, as well as serious issues.
What presents did you bring to your readers as the director of A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA publishing?
“Probably, the greatest present is the new book by Lina Kostenko, her Diary of a Ukrainian Madman, which St. Nicholas has already brought to our readers. In the nearest future we also hope to publish the story My dear beau-pere!... by my favorite Hungarian writer Tibor Deri. I should single out that shortly before the New Year we published a book based on the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes by Andersen. This is a timeless story for children and people of all ages.”
By the time this interview is published many readers will have started or even finished the Diary of a Ukrainian Madman and will have their own idea about the book. But your opinion is still interesting: how is this book by Lina Kostenko different from other ones?
“Lina Kostenko is recognizable first of all for being just as accurately aphoristic [in her prose] as in her poetry. This book abounds in the wittiest and the most caustics maxims. At the same time it is different because it is a thorough contemporary chronicle, a kind of a ‘Chronicle by the 3rd Millennium Eyewitness.’ Certainly, poetry is unable to provide such a wide perspective.”
How successful was your quite unusual idea to publish the anthology The Dreams — a compilation of Ukrainian writers’ dreams?
“The project itself is really unusual; there are a lot of interesting texts in it. However, I hoped that this book would be more ‘lofty.’ I think I am more experienced in making children’s books. Adults’ books take plenty of time — I work a lot with texts and translations. Very few people understand how troublesome the editor’s work is, it remains behind the scenes but it eats away a lot of time. But the worst is that some ‘adult’ graphomaniacs started bothering me as they want to be published, and they get very angry. Before only ‘children’s’ ones did it, but now it is something terrible — I would need 10 lives to read everything, and they require to do it for tomorrow and only by myself. Probably, I will publish just a few adult books that I have wanted to publish for a long time — some prose and poetry — and then I will concentrate on children’s books in order to raise adult Ukrainian readers better.”
Back to the winter holidays: your poetry has such a moving miraculous atmosphere that is always associated with Christmas and the New Year…
“I’ve always said that Ukrainians are Christmas people. The lightness of the Christmas atmosphere, hundreds of amazing carols reveal amazing Ukrainian character seeking miracles. In my childhood I used to take part in the folk theater (vertep) and sing Christmas carols. And the period ‘from St. Nicholas day to the Epiphany — the Ukrainian Ramadan’ is my favorite one. Then one can see the folk theater and common joy everywhere, no matter how hard people’s lives are. That is why there is so much Christmas in my poetry — it gives the utmost inspiration. There is nothing better for me than Christmas with my family, in the Carpathians, in my native village of Berezove, where I cook 10-15 liters of kutya [a sweet, porridge-like Ukrainian Christmas food – Ed.].”
Traditional “winter” reading is calm, in a warm room under the lamp, when it snows outside... Is there time for this in the modern world, quick and fragmented?
“Children’s books are usually focused on the winter fairytale, and even the snow that covers the earth is something magical. One of my first childhood memories (I was 3-4 years old) is a winter one. My dad says: ‘Ivanko, tomorrow St. Nicholas will come, you have to know how to pray,’ and he teaches me the children’s prayer ‘My angel.’ Later this prayer would become the front page of my first children’s book Primer. Since then for forty-five consecutive years St. Nicholas came to our house in Berezove, where half of the village children gathered. I don’t know why but St. Nicholas had my father’s traits… Unfortunately, this year for the first time St. Nicholas didn’t come…
“There is less and less space for calm reading. Fear and hopelessness is being spread in people’s hearts, and they don’t read. This generates a lack of taste and desecration of everything native and sacred, everything that correlates with deep culture. Millions of people get offended.”
At the end of the year the best books are picked. Various awards and rankings are published. What was the main 2010 event for you? What is your “book of the year”?
“The general impression is that they published less books than in 2009. 2010 didn’t fascinate me with new books, though there were some notable and important ones, for example all the “BBC Book of the Year”nominees. The new book by Lina Kostenko is dated from 2011 (we didn’t expect to make it this year), so let’s hope that in 2011 we will have more new and interesting issues — in spring the new luxurious color book The Flint by Yerko and some other talented new color issues will appear… In general, I wouldn’t like to delve into the problems of Ukrainian publishing, at least not during these magical holidays. Given our social circumstances it is a rather sad, but not a hopeless case.”
In the “Ukrainian Ramadan” Christian, pagan, and social holidays are mixed up… What is more important for you, the New Year or Christmas?
“In my Carpathian childhood we didn’t celebrate the New Year. This tradition might have appeared at the same time as TVs and the Soviet celebrations. But I don’t regret that now we have a new holiday, the more that it fits well into the general winter cycle. Now we celebrate the New Year in Kyiv, and Christmas in Berezove.
“Of course, sometimes I want to celebrate Christmas with the whole world. It is strange that for us Jesus Christ is born two weeks later. Isn’t it why those inviolable democratic values, existing in Europe, are being born and established in our country later? Isn’t it why everything in our country happens too late? Maybe we should try to celebrate not only two New Years, but two Christmases too?.. (Laughing).”