Words to stumble upon / Stolperworte

Evgeniia Nesterovych

pdf Words to stumble upon

Of all the tragic memorials I’ve seen, Hunter Demnig’s stones, that I first encountered in Cologne and later in Berlin, still seem for me to be the most accurate way to commemorate the Holocaust tragedy. Maybe it’s because those tiny brass paving stones, scattered throughout the German cities, personify not the grief but the memory itself. They are distinct and, therefore, resemble specific individuals; they are bound to one place and, therefore, quite contextual; they do not demand your attention aggressively, only ever being spotted by an observant one, and, therefore they are not at all about politics. What they are about is humanity. Those are footprints; they all belonged to somebody, they all carry rolled manuscripts of tales of men quietly unfolding against the background of History.

Words — novels, letters, poems, chats, comments — remain perhaps the most lasting traces of human epochs and individual people. Especially when it concerns works of literature. And the only way to understand what the historical periods, aptly called – “periods of silence” – were all about, is to try and read between the lines of those texts.

Shortly after the March of 2014, when the situation in Ukraine had crossed the line of “national protests” and “political conflicts”, a sort of common feeling of remarkable and rapid expansion of Ukrainian context had emerged. Our local (as we then regarded them) issues and the activity of each and every participant in the cultural field expanded into the wider range of interaction. Writer’s word became even more politicized with but a little resistance to the effect still remaining, while political tint of literary discussions gets even further, becoming perhaps the deepest since the independence of Ukraine.

We are now actively discussing the methods of adequate media coverage of the armed conflict in the East of Ukraine, the decent options for a commemoration of the Maidan events, the national propaganda and public communication of Ukrainian authorities. We live in the era of militarized social advertising that urges people to join a warfare. As of yet we have no meaning of knowing with which consequences of the present actions we’ll have to deal in 15-20 years.

Then again: I do believe that the interest of Ukrainians in the German history of the Berlin Wall era is quite insufficient. Neither cases of GDR and FRG nor the stories of reunified Germany with its issues with «ossi und wessi» are presented in our current discourse. And that is a mistake. The experience of previous interrelations between ideological opponents, despite that the consequences of said unity may have looked quite grim for some, might have come in handy earlier and even more so now, given the perspective.

Now here’s where the literature comes to the rescue. A work of fiction always bears the signs of the times even though in terms of thematical stuffing it may speak of nothing. The unspoken reminds of itself implicitly, practically shining through the minuscule details be it via names, narration, descriptions or the vocabulary. And, surely, even more so when the text happens to be written by a biased author during critical times.
And that is precisely the time to look back at the contemporary Ukrainian literature regarding events of Maidan.

During the last two years, plenty of books of different genres were published; it would probably be safe to say their quantity exceeds a hundred. Documentary materials (including social media activity, visual projects, personal stories), reportages, journalism, critical essays, novels, short stories and even poetry – especially poetry.

It was poetry that became the most prominent phenomenon of the so-called “Maidan’s literature” in Ukraine. Julia Musakovs’ka, Sergiy Zhadan, Mar’iana Savka, Dmitro Lazutkin, Marianna Kiyanovska, Pavlo Korobchuk, Irina Tcilik, Boris Khersons’kiy, Katerina Kalitko, Boris Gumenyuk, Olena Gerasim’yuk, Lyubov Yakymchuk and many others wrote their poems “from the battlefield”. Most of those texts were firstly published in Facebook and, as the consequence,they reached an even deeper level of contextualization than ever before. Poetry assumed the role of a documentary, becoming an accessory to events, an imprint of emotions. In fact, that is why some of the poetry of Maidan’s period became “popular”, regardless of their artistic qualities, as it was not about the art anymore but the sincerity of transmitted collective emotions conceived by a certain momentum. In a critical situation, the poetry provided the broadest toolkit for description as it was able to offer metaphors of meanings as well as relevant realistic details.

Ukrainian literary tradition of previous centuries in itself eliminates the question whether there’s time for poetry at the moment when history is being created. As a result of a variety of special conditions of virtually stateless existence, our culture placed many of it’s “strong” (authoritative or reliable) functions onto literature and of course onto poetry. That’s why when it comes to writing poetry against the background of collapsing empires and revolutions, our contemporary Ukrainian writers have the entire history of literature to rely upon.

Another matter is that we actually do not have much to operate with when it comes to the ambiguous times, gray zones and obscure periods. None of the living Ukrainian Sixtiers is quite that willing to share stories about his or hers communist past or to publish straightforward and honest memoirs for that matter. Ukrainian literary tradition, with its post-Soviet legacy of hushing everything off, lacks it actively and critically. As said hushing gives out the wrong impression of glorious history, where there are only heroes, evil aggressors, and innocent victims. And no civil war, prolonged periods of division, cultural differences, cooperation with regimes or conflicts of conscience. It’s either #treason or #victory.

Therefore, when you look at the contemporary literature, as well as accompanying media discourse, you can clearly see the intentional omission of the “different” in the texts and how obscure and inconvenient parts of the “picture” are being obfuscated. An underrepresented in politics side of the conflict remains generalized in poetry as well, including on the level of book graphics. Ukrainian literature of 2013-2015 is not at all about the conflict with Russia or pro-Russian citizens of the East of the country and Crimea. The main drama occurs in the midst of the battle between the abstract forces of good and evil, injustice or death.

However, what is it that remains between the lines? The pain and limits of existence at the times of war, as being described by Boris Gumenyuk; the awareness of mythology and archaism of the contemporary conflict — by Katerina Kalitko; the female perspective on the tragedy — by Yuliya Musakovska; the internal conflicts, shame, metaphysical guilt — by Oleksandr Kabanov; conflict with society and cognitive dissonance — by Boris Khersons’kiy; the painful loss of home – by Lyubov Yakimchuk; the bitter sense of general injustice and absurdity of death — by Serhiy Zhadan… The list may go on and on: Ukrainian literature once again actively undertook the therapeutic social function, because our culture of treating a psychological trauma with a help of psychotherapy is much less developed than the culture of laments. And now it’s causing us more trouble than good.

Although later, after 15-20 years, those same, nowadays so “practical” texts, will most certainly become a “words to stumble upon” for the next generations of readers, and they will speak of emotional, contextual part of Ukrainian reality of 2013-2015. They will be here to fill in the gaps in facts and chronology of schoolbooks, creating a three-dimensional picture of our history. It will be fascinating to trace what would succumb into unavoidable “oblivion” and what would be wiped out from a collective cultural (and especially official) memory. Dynamic “canon”, formed here and now, will then probably become an illustrative slice of the public mood and a “tyranny of averages”.

For quite some time now there’s been an ongoing discussion regarding “hate speech” or “language of war” in Ukraine: is it possible to avoid it completely and if so — is it really necessary? Clearly, there cannot be neither definitive nor solidary solution to this problem. Nonetheless, “anti-haters”, conciliatory speeches from public intellectuals and writers are being perceived practically as a collaboration with the enemy, undermining of national interests and an overall #treason. And said trend does not bode well in the long run: an extremely high level of such discussions turns all the participants overly aggressive and unbalanced, eliminating any chances of even an illusory consensus — and hence nullifies the discussion as such. Unquestionably, a period of military conflict is far from the best time for finding a common ground in any country and it will surely be an unpleasant, uncomfortable and painful experience. However, the search for the right words is only possible when the speakers are not being hushed.