Ukraine What Rhymes with War?

The premiere of Depeche Mode in Kharkiv.
The premiere of Depeche Mode in Kharkiv. | Photo: Marharyta Kornyushchenko

Serhiy Zhadan is one of the chief influencers of the young scene in his home city of Kharkiv in the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine. The poet, author und musician fought on the Maidan and polemicized against Putin. The Goethe-Institut collaborates closely with him, most recently as part of the special Eastern Partnership funding by the German Foreign Office by supporting the production of the theatrical version of Zhadan’s novel Depeche Mode. In it, Zhadan writes about personal fates and the responsibility of writers in times of war.

The first war novels are being published in Ukraine. Subjective, painful books with real people; sometimes they remind one of reportages, sometimes of collected comments from the social networks. They are causing hype among the readers and filling the bookshop shelves. They are hard to critique. Even if you do not like the form much, the authors’ frankness is disarming. No one knows how to write reviews about them; there has been no war in Ukraine since its independence.

Serhij Zhadan Serhij Zhadan | Photo: Stephan Röhl No one was prepared for wartime and certainly no one – neither authors nor critics – were prepared to write about it. Literature attempts to grasp what is in the air. It reacts to the events out there, attempts to hold on and to preserve, searches for new words. It attempts to sense new constellations that have nothing in common with the pre-war time, neither in their language nor in their tragedy nor the first-hand encounter with death.

How to write about war

How can one write about the war at all, especially when one is a safe distance from it? How real is the viewpoint of a person in the backcountry when they write about artillery fire and wounds? Does the geographic distance contribute to objectivity or does it prevent it altogether? Is it possible at all to write objectively about the war? Is it even desirable? To its own surprise, Ukrainian culture is confronted with many serious questions. What is presently happening to us all is a kind of coming of age. The war drives the infantilism out of all of us, even the poets.

Suddenly, you see yourself faced with countless questions: how are you to react to so much blood and adversity in your own neighbourhood? Should you talk about things that refer to very personal tragedies and calamities? Is it alright to write about it and is it just as alright to remain silent? Is art necessary at all in times of war? The questions seem fairly general and rhetorical, but perhaps the war is precisely the moment in which the general warps into the personal, depending on your own experiences.

Art enables resistance and survival

In times of war strange things happen with art anyway. Sometimes it defies the outward circumstances and the political climate. Politicians and civil servants can economize with art projects all they want and blame the cutbacks on war expenditures and the poor economy. But you only need to have travelled once through the bomb-gutted little towns of Donbass and have experienced the reaction of the local population to music and literature. Or the reaction of the military personnel when musician and authors come to them and invite them to improvised concerts and readings.

Commemorating the victims of Maidan: Photos and candles commemorate the dead. Commemorating the victims of Maidan: Photos and candles commemorate the dead. | Photo: Natalka Diacenko People cling to art as a thing that formed them, with which they can identify and that makes them forget the internal deformities. Parallels can be drawn to adverse everyday conditions: Even if you have no hot water, you have to wash. Art all at once enables resistance and survival, recognizes their weight for society, feels the ties with thousands of destinies and biographies. So you are not just writing rhymes, but in this way you are communicating with others, with those who listen to you, who want to understand you. This is an extremely important and responsible moment.

Everyone – both the readers and the authors – leaves such events changed. The novels written or poems recited, the patriotic video clips and documentary photography exhibitions are of secondary importance. What matters is that from all the literature, from all of the black and white frontline photographs, from all the anger, the pathos and the despair a new hero arises whose voice, whose intonation can be heard. It would be nice if this hero could return home as soon as possible, if only to tell us about it all.

Serhiy Zhadan, who was born in eastern Ukraine in 1974, lives in Kharkiv. The BBC praised his work Voroshilovgrad as the “Book of the Decade.” The Goethe-Institut has been collaborating closely with him for many years – whether as a poet, musician or the voice of the Maidan. Most recently, as part of the special Eastern Partnership funding by the German Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut supported the production of the theatrical version of Serhiy Zhadan’s novel Depeche Mode at the children’s and youth theatre in Kharkiv.