“Writers Are the Middlemen Between the Human Race and Immortality”: A Conversation with Yuri Andrukhovych

By Kate TsurkanJuly 26, 2022

“Writers Are the Middlemen Between the Human Race and Immortality”: A Conversation with Yuri Andrukhovych
NOVELIST, POET, AND ESSAYIST Yuri Andrukhovych is one of the most important figures in contemporary Ukrainian literature. Much of his work has been translated into English, including his novels Recreations (1992), The Moscoviad (1993), Perverzion (1996), and Twelve Circles (2003), and the poetry collection Songs for a Dead Rooster (2004). He spoke with me about his latest novel (as yet untranslated), Radio Night (2021), which addresses themes of immortality, revolution, and the artist’s influence on society. We also discussed the role of language in Ukrainian society, especially in the context of war.


KATE TSURKAN: Even though it has yet to be translated, I want to pique the reader’s interest and talk a little about your latest novel, Radio Night. It has been called an “acoustic novel.” What does that mean? 

YURI ANDRUKHOVYCH: It was always my lifelong dream to write a novel that incorporated as much music into it as possible. I was always very jealous of musicians and composers, and I wanted to play in a band when I was younger. To this day, I still cannot play any musical instrument. All I have is my voice, so I decided to make that my instrument. Relatively late in life — that is to say, once I entered my 40s — I started to take part in musical performances with real musicians. I learned a lot from them; it is quite different from the literary world. So, it was my intention to combine these two worlds in a text. I wanted to create a text with sounds — an acoustic novel.

As I understand it, there is a special story behind the novel’s title. Could you share that with us?

Around 2005, I was invited onto the radio at the University of Warsaw. The interviews are sometimes very challenging and provocative. The students posed a question that I was completely unprepared for — they asked me what I would do with my life if I suddenly lost the ability to write. My first reaction was that perhaps I’d start a radio station that broadcasts sad music at night. Naturally they asked me what the name of this station would be, to which I answered: “Radio Sadness.” It was my initial title for the novel when I started writing it years later — this novel where the protagonist is a guy sitting in a radio booth in the night, telling stories about himself and his life, accompanied by music. I was forced to change the title, though — shortly before I finished writing the book, the young Ukrainian writer Serhiy Martyniuk’s novel Captain Sadness was published. I was invited to write a blurb for his novel, which I enjoyed very much. It is underrated — nobody has really noticed it in the Ukrainian literary sphere, but it is a good book. But I decided that Radio Sadness could not exist in this world when Captain Sadness already did. Hence the title Radio Night.

Keeping the word “radio” in the title was absolutely necessary, because this metaphor of night works perfectly with the events of the novel. Night is the time when you are extremely close to the radio. If you are in bed and cannot sleep, it is the best way to communicate with the universe, to take in the sounds broadcast on the radio airwaves.

In Radio Night, the main character believes himself to be immortal. Should writers think the same way?

Yes, they should. Not only for themselves: Writers are the middlemen between the human race and immortality. We deal with language in the most intensive way, but in any other situation, we are just liars. To do what we do, you must believe in language, and a part of me still believes that it has the capacity to perform miracles. This is of course the big dilemma of our time: we are standing idle in the face of language shrinking. People use less and less words; they don’t feel the need to speak on an elevated level.

Writers — well, some of them — feel that shrinking of language in a very special and, dare I say, painful way, so they can’t help but try to resist it. They defend the complexity of language and the very existence of language itself by writing. 

In Radio Night, the main character has David Bowie’s eyes. I once said, not entirely joking, that Bowie’s death in 2016 was a cataclysmic event that ushered us into a strange new reality. Can such a legendary — such an immortal — artistic figure exist in today’s world? 

It’s a good question. Well, in 2014 I spent half a year in Berlin teaching at the university. During that time, there was a huge exhibition about David Bowie, his life and creativity. I was a big fan of his work long before then. This exhibition took up countless halls, and you saw the universality of this figure. A filmmaker, animator, designer — that is, he was a lot more than just a performer. He did so much during his life, and it has to be said that everything was quite good. I only managed to get there at the very end of my stay in Berlin, because it was impossible to purchase a ticket during those six months; they were always sold out. When I finally purchased a ticket, it was after standing in line for a good two or three hours. It is fantastic to think that such things happen in our times. Perhaps he was the last of his kind — as they say, from a different planet altogether …

All of your characters have rather striking, almost eccentric names. The name of the main character in Radio Night, Joseph Rotsky, might tempt any well-versed reader to delve into layers of literary references. Is there some purpose in giving your characters such unusual names? 

The names of my main characters are essential to my aesthetics, my way of writing. I couldn’t write a novel where the hero goes by some typical-sounding name like Petro Melnyk. Such people are not interesting to me. Whenever I start a new book, I begin to make some preparations: I have to collect some unusual, strange, exotic names. Geographical points matter a lot too. It is the starting point of my communication with the reader, the raising of the proverbial curtain, so to speak.

Radio Night is filled with allusions to the Revolution of Dignity, and we understand that Joseph Rotsky, the hero, played some kind of role in it. When the novel begins, however, he is speaking to us from a radio broadcasting booth, alone. It is a kind of purgatory. Would you say Ukraine since 2014 finds itself in the same situation? 

Yes, exactly. In this situation we have to acknowledge that the revolution didn’t have a happy ending, and by that I mean it hasn’t ended yet. The continuation of our beautiful and tragic struggle is not always optimistic. In this sense, you are very right to speak of purgatory.

It lasted until February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia wanted to drag us from purgatory into hell, so that we, like them, are trapped in an authoritarian, post-Soviet inferno. They didn’t realize how far we Ukrainians are from them, which is why they have failed spectacularly.

But I digress. Let’s go back to this topic of purgatory you asked me about. I like purgatory as a deep and rich metaphor. It offers a lot to writers and readers alike. This is a basic philosophical idea that is integral to my work. Otto von F. in Moscoviad, Stas Perfetsky in Perverzion, Artur Pepa in Twelve Circles — each of them experiences some dangerous penetration into a “parallel space,” let’s call it an “antiworld,” where he should go through a very risky trial that can confirm or deny his ability to live, to love, and to create. It’s always some strange and magical rite, usually depicted in a parodistic style.

It’s a kind of solution, because it implies that there is still hope, still a future. But it doesn’t guarantee victory: it is a scary and dangerous situation, where everything is not always as it seems.

Since 2014, we’ve heard a lot of talk about Ukrainian writers serving as cultural ambassadors to the world. Would you agree with this sentiment?

Writers should never formulate such a task for themselves. There is no writer who can save Ukraine — or any other country, for that matter. They might manage to do some things that function like the mission of ambassadors, but it must be said that this is rather spontaneous and unexpected. The most important obligation a writer has is to the poetic quality of his text. Everything else borders on parody.

To return to this theme of music, I was wondering if you could comment on the role it plays in the lives of contemporary Ukrainian writers. So many of you have musical projects: you, Serhiy Zhadan, Yuri Izdryk, Irena Karpa, Marjana Savka … Why is that?

Well, it’s not solely a Ukrainian phenomenon, that’s for sure. But of course, we have some special impetus to work in that field. All of the Ukrainian writers you mentioned pursue very different forms of music. Classical, pop, rock, rap, ska … In my case, I work with free jazz and fusion. Some music lovers might call it controlled chaos, but I prefer to call it an uncontrolled mind. What is special about Ukrainian writer-musicians is that we exist in an ocean of bad music, which for the most part is in Russian. It has dirtied the minds of people, the atmosphere. And so, there is a motivation to make some kind of alternative protest. Alternative is a quite precise descriptor here. Perhaps some of us believe our influence is much bigger than it really is, but I personally think, for myself, that I am quite invisible. But I still do it because I feel like it’s the right thing for me to do. It gives me the possibility to step away from my desk yet still do something artistic and see the faces of this growing minority we are working for in Ukraine.

Since Ukrainian independence — and the past eight years in particular — we’ve seen the Ukrainian language become more commonplace in everyday life. Do you think the day will come when the Ukrainian language will finally no longer have to compete with the Russian language in Ukraine, for example in the publishing sphere?

I am certain that day will come, but I am not sure if I will still be around to see it. Yet it must be said that notable progress has been made during my lifetime. I started expressing my opinion on this topic 35 years ago, during Soviet times. In 1985, my friends Victor Neborak, Sashko Irvanets, and I founded the literary performance group Bu-Ba-Bu, and we endeavored to change the common perceptions of what contemporary Ukrainian poetry could be and to persuade the young Ukrainian people how stunning the possibilities of Ukrainian language are. It was especially difficult back then, as you might expect.

Enough time has passed where I can make evidence-based conclusions, but unfortunately I have not seen my dreams materialized just yet. At the same time, I see this Ukrainization as an entirely natural and organic process.

I’m not against other languages. A writer cannot be against language. But I think the main injustice for Ukraine is that its language, Ukrainian, has been secondary in its country for obvious historical reasons. If it becomes number one for all Ukrainians, then we will find ourselves on the right path.

Did the Russian invasion accelerate this process?

Absolutely, yes. It’s quite ironic that each attempt Russia has made to destroy Ukrainian culture has had the opposite effect. Ukrainians are a very stubborn people. Since the Russian invasion began and both Ukrainians and the world witnessed the horrific atrocities Russian troops were committing against Ukrainian civilians, there is now a widespread tendency among Ukrainians to speak entirely in Ukrainian. You might sometimes hear languages like English, German, Polish, French, but no Russian, not anymore. Let’s see how long this tendency will last after the war. 

Literary production has slowed down considerably in Ukraine due to the war. It is hard for some to imagine writing poetry after the crimes committed in Bucha, Mariupol, and elsewhere. What might Ukrainian literature look like going forward?

I don’t think we can make some general conclusion about the current state of the Ukrainian book industry, but I hope that we are slowly moving back toward some semblance of normalcy. But I’m not a publisher, and therefore I can’t offer insight on the specifics of production. I can only offer my impression, which is that the best Ukrainian publishers will not only survive but also develop their publishing platforms. And what’s more important is that new poems, novels, stories, essays, etc. will be written in Ukrainian, and of course they will be read and discussed. It is the best way to overcome the Russian aggressors and to survive in that humanitarian catastrophe they have brought upon us.


Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenie magazine.


Featured image: "Andrukhovych in 2015" by Rafał Komorowski is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenie magazine.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!