Author: Sebastian Fasthuber
Published: REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, August 2007


Serhij Zhadan
was born in 1974 in the region of Luhansk/ east Ukraine. He studied literature and German. He has made an extensive study of the literary tradition of his country and wrote his doctorate about Ukrainian futurism. Since 1991 he has been part of the young literature scene in Charkiv and by now is one of its best known representatives internationally. The volume of poetry “Geschichte der Kultur zu Anfang des Jahrhunderts” ( A History of Culture at the Beginning of the Century) is available in a German translation, as is his novel “Depeche Mode”, both of them published by edition suhrkamp. In December 2007 the novel “Anarchy in the UKR” will be released by the same publishers.

“Report” author Sebastian Fasthuber also works as a free-lance music and literature critic for “now!”, “Falter”, “Der Standard” and “Spex”, among other publications.

To order book at: SuhrkampVerlag

“Pop culture is like the Bible: hardly anyone has read it but everyone knows the quotations from it”

An interview with Serhiy Zhadan about his novel “Depeche Mode”

You were born in 1974. You novel “Depeche Mode” is set in the early Nineties. How do you remember this period in Ukraine yourself?
I was just beginning my twenties, and the best thing about this time was the new music that we started to hear after the collapse of communism. For my generation this period was a beginning in two senses: the start of our adult lives and the beginning of a related uncertainty about what the future might bring. I was doing my military service. You knew that this obligatory service would finish some time or other but the authorities never told you when exactly it would end. This is the kind of situation in which all the characters in my novel “Depeche Mode”, which has recently appeared in German, find themselves in: based on real or imaginary models, they are caught up in a maelstom of uncertainty of their existence. Today, 14 years later, I no longer feel particularly close to the protagonists, nor to myself at that time. I have changed and Ukrainian society has changed.

You describe the situation for young people back then as extremely hopeless. What is it like today, how do you evaluate the current chances for young people in Ukraine?
You know, I believe that, beyond the issues of politics and unemployment, all young people in all countries and at all periods, generally have the same problems: sex, drugs and no interest in social conformity. Young people in Ukraine have a major problem with addictive substances, in particular with alcohol. This probably has something to do with the Orthodox tradition. In Eastern Europe everyone is militantly opposed to cannabis but vodka is regarded as harmless and it costs the same here as Coca-Cola.

In your book “Depeche Mode” the young protagonists don’t even know what they want, or what they should long for. What do Ukrainians today long for?
In the last decade and a half Ukraine has changed fundamentally. The ruins of communism have disappeared, in the meantime communism has become one of our heroic legends and the first ruins of capitalism are appearing. Today we practice a young energetic, turbo capitalist social model coupled with many socialist elements and a great longing for paradise. This is a remarkable stage of development for our nation. A similar perception must haved prevailed in Europe between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Apropos turbo-capitalism: to what extent does this threaten the cultural traditions of Ukraine?
I believe that the major threat for the national culture and for the cultural traditions of our country is not the capitalist economy but capitalist culture. To put it another way the problem is not fast-food in general but McDonald’s as a cultural phenomenon.

Young Ukrainian authors seem to haved very close ties to their native country. Hardly any of them leave on a permananent basis, and your colleague Ljubko Deresch said recently: “Ukraine is a strange, unstable country but that’s why I love it so much.
I can only agree with this, I also love Ukraine. I wouldn’t leave the country, even if the communists were to return to power tomorrow. Whatever the political system I would stay in Ukraine.

How stable do you think democracy is?
Sorry, but I don’t understand entirely what the term “democracy” means. It is, of course, defined in a number of very different ways in our country. The press is subject to censorship, literature not. We have over 200 political parties but we do not have free politics. And this is the same in almost all areas, that’s what I can say about democracy.

You live in Charkiv, the largest town in east Ukraine, which was traditionally always oriented towards Russia. Is this still noticeable today?
On the streets you hear more Russian. But when you speak to people in Ukrainian now they answer in Ukrainian. Russian is the language used in public life in east Ukraine, whereas at home people speak Ukrainian. Increasingly the people of east Ukraine see themselves as Ukrainian citizens. I like the east of this country, it has more potential than many believe.

You published your first volume of poetry when you were barely 20 years old. Did you write in Ukrainian from the start?
Yes, always, language is not so much a topic of discussion among us authors as it is among politicians. In Ukraine there are also very many excellent authors who write in Russian, I don’t wish to deny that. Unfortunately it has to be said that as regards their themes they often oriente themselves towards Moscow and Russia.

Many of those interested in literature find current Ukrainian literature and literature from Eastern Europe in general far more exciting than, say, German literature. Can you offer any explanation for this?
I don’t know. Perhaps things are not so good for authors in the western Schengen zone and they are experiencing writing blocks?

How do you manage? Can one survive as an author in Ukraine?
Officially I am unemployed. I write books, articles for newspapers, magazines and rock groups, give a lot of readings in Ukraine and throughout Europe. Somehow or other I manage. I don’t own a house with a swimming pool and I don’t buy cocaine. But I own a bicyle and I have negotiated good fees from the publishing companies.

Can people in Ukraine afford to buy books?
Let’s put it this way, they are very interested in books. Not so many buy books as they are really too expensive for most people but many people with an interest in literature attend readings. This is a good sign!

Your latest novel will appear in German in autumn. Once again the title is a very striking one: “Anarchy in the UKR”, what is the book about?

It is a book without a subject, it is very intimate, brutal and lyrical.

You are a very literate author and yet have a pronounced weakness for pop culture. Do you see this as a contradiction?
No, there is not great difference. Pop culture is like the Bible: hardly anyone has read it but almost everyone knows the quotations from it.