Tanja Maljartschuk
by Ganna Uliura
Short profile

Tanja Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian writer, essayist, publicist. The English translations include the novels A Biography of a Chance Miracle translated by Zenia Tompkins and published by Cadmus Press (2019), and Forgottenness translated by Zenia Tompkins and Published by Liveright

Each moment of this conversation is accompanied by a burning need to unite our real experiences. This need is as pressing now as never before – whether we're talking about those participants within Ukraine, or those Ukrainians who live outside its borders. All of Tanja Maljartschuk's works – both prose and poetry – are at their core a contemplation of that moment when a personally endured, even intimate experience becomes a condition for cohesion of that moment when "I" becomes "We". This moment combines your own experiences with your current ones, with those of another, with those of someone completely unknown – regardless of whether you seek this, whether you wish for it to happen or not. I couldn't have chosen a more attuned conversation partner in the context of correlating life experiences.

Tanja Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian writer born in Ivano-Frankivsk, often and rightly associated with the younger generation of the Stanislaviv phenomenon, who currently lives and works in Austria. Tanja is well known in Ukraine: among her literary achievements are the Joseph Conrad Literary Award and the BBC Book of the Year. She is also known in the German-speaking world: Tanja is the recipient of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Usedom Literary Prize. To date, she has published seven prose "adult" books, one book for teenagers, a poetry book and an essay collection. With the outbreak of a full-scale war, Tanja's novel “Forgottenness” became significantly relevant, echoing the biography of historian Viacheslav Lypynskyi and the story of a young woman on the cusp of a great change. This is a kind of reflection on History that echoes in biographies – an exploration of the noise of time. Again, this book has become a subject of discussion. And today we, who are lost within a moment of History, have turned to Tanja's prose for solace.

T.M. How are you? Your city is not often in the news these days.

G.U. It's both good and bad: objectively, there are fewer incidents – M. [Mykolaiv - ed.] is now just a rear city, but it is still close to the front and not everything can be covered in the news. You understand, you've been to Ukraine recently and you know that the images in the news and the reality are often about different things.

– During the summer, I visited Ukraine for the first time since the invasion, and I had a feeling, albeit a very illusory one, that I understood everything again, knew everything, and had my finger on the pulse. Crossing the border made it disappear. If I'm not physically in Ukraine, it seems that this connection with reality, with the truth, with the real truth, disappears. And sometimes it's scary to talk to someone whose truth is bigger than yours: you don't know if you can handle what you're going to hear, even if you asked. I visited Kyiv, Lviv, and Frankivsk. I was lucky: two and a half weeks with brief nightly air raid alarms. But overall, I didn't get the experience of war and even regretted it foolishly, because I wanted to be with everyone at least through this purely physical experience. When solidarity becomes something related to the life of the body. Also an illusion. My 67-year-old mother in Frankivsk begins and ends every conversation we have with something like this: "We are lucky, we don't have a war. We are here as if we were in God's good graces. But those poor people, they're there in the east." Every day she lives with it and talks about it – about the war that supposedly doesn't exist.

Did you see what you expected to see in Ukraine?

– I traveled to Ukraine and felt a multi-layered fear: of a physical attack on myself, but I was more afraid to see what these months had done to my country, to my parents, to my friends. I arrived, got very sick, and was lying in bed with a temperature over forty. That was my reaction to that fear. At one point, I even thought: I was so afraid of dying from a rocket, but I might die from a common sore throat. It was scary and, at the same time, very tender.

I remember the moment when the bus from Krakow approached the border, there were fewer cars, and I saw the sign "Ukraine" – how I cried. I did not see ruin, disbelief, and decay in Ukraine. Instead, there was euphoria, perhaps even hormonal, from being in constant danger. I don't think I've ever felt life like that. Everything was so sharp, the colors so vivid, the tastes so strong. People – even random taxi drivers – shared some incredible stories. I didn't want to go back.

In Ukraine, you have a feeling that you are in a flow. And here, in the German-speaking space, where I moved voluntarily and where I have lived since 2011, I am now consumed by a feeling of being detached from my own, from something very important that will completely determine the rest of my life, no matter where I am on this planet. Recently, I had a discussion with the Afghan author Nahid Shahalimi. Her country has been in war for 50 years. I listened to Nahid's story about the struggle of Afghan women and realized that this is the abyss of authoritarianism and lawlessness that we are looking into and fighting against.

But there is powerlessness: you can't do enough, you can't help. Helplessness is hard to get rid of. So is guilt. Those are natural reactions, and that's why it's so hard to protect yourself from them, even when you realize it's not good for you, it's not effective... A lot of things I now look at only from the standpoint of effectiveness.

Is that why you haven't written fiction in the last year? Is that why your latest book, published in 2022, is essays in German – a genre you hadn't systematically worked on before, in a language you hadn't worked with systematically in literature before? "Gleich geht die Geschichte weiter, wir atmen nur aus". Is this also a statement about efficiency?

– Yes, it is. Personally, I don't see any point in fiction now. Sometimes I dream of short poems, like this one recently: "At night, flowers can finally rest from the bees". It's funny and bitter. Last February, I stopped working on a novel about the Holocaust in Galicia. Although I had collected a lot of material, immersed myself in the topic, read documents in five languages, and even learned a little Yiddish. I had the idea to recreate the history of just one Galician town during World War II. The one from which a part of my family originates. I found all the perpetrators, the Gestapo and the Schutzpolizei, the latter coming from Vienna and its surroundings, – imagine the irony, – the city where I live now. I read their letters and saw how their understanding of their own guilt changed. I even cried, sympathizing with the criminals. There was one heartbreaking letter of repentance: "Do not tell my son what a beast I have become,” he wrote. I wanted to write the story of murderers, beasts, ordinary people who, under favorable conditions, are capable of terrible deeds. They also did not consider Ukrainian police, the local sadists who did the dirty work, to be human beings and spoke very disdainfully of them. An Austrian, an ordinary baker at home, was interrogated in 1947 and said: “Oh, so many people had been killed there that the few I killed don't really change anything.”

"There" is "right here," the place where your people are, the place where your family comes from.

– It was very difficult for me to accept that their "there", somewhere very far away, on the edge of the world, is about us, within us. And now we have a new tragedy, a new war, and very similar “master humans,” full of a sense of superiority and dominance, just from the other side have come, to arrange another genocide. What kind of fiction could there be? For example, I will never write about this war, never. My goal is for it to end, and that's it. Then I will lie low somewhere in Bruges and disappear from the public radar, and I will be silent for a very long time.

The essays you mentioned were mostly written in German, with only three translations from Ukrainian. All the texts are about the war that started in 2014, about emigration, about culture and the culture of memory, about traumas. When I talk about Ukraine now, it helps me to refer to this collection. I believe it helps non-Ukrainians to understand us a little better. At the same time, it was easier for me to discuss certain topics in a foreign language.

It is a great privilege to have two working languages, one of which is not your mother tongue. I had to write in German, and very quickly, about three years after learning the language: I was attacked by journalists who asked for a Ukrainian perspective. At that time there were few German-speaking Ukrainians in the information field. So I started writing in German out of a sense of duty to Ukraine. That was 2014. Now, when I sign this German book to someone, I always ask them what year it is. Time seems to be frozen.

There is a sense of a terrible present that goes on and on, and of the past that led to it. There is no sense of the future. And we don't want to think about it. The consequences of what is happening – even if the war ends one way or another, Ukraine retains its statehood, and everything is as we imagine and want it to be – still have long-lasting and depressing consequences...

As you can see, I am a person of a pessimistic-sarcastic nature, although I believe in miracles.

You wrote a dystopian novel for young adults about a world where human civilization has been replaced by a dictatorial community of intelligent bats. I suppose your vision of the future is of the pessimistic type.

– Overall, I don't have a very high opinion of humanity's efforts. It is still irrational enough to self-destruct. So much has already been destroyed and killed, and there is no end to this barbarism. The struggle is always for the same things and against the same things. It's easy to get discouraged.

I used to get very upset when the Germans asked me: "What gives you faith?" I wanted to shout at them, "What kind of faith are you talking about?" Faith means action. You have to do something. What you do now will determine my future and yours. But a Swiss writer, a friend of mine, recently pointed out to me that faith is not a feeling, but an ethical concept. One acquires it, one is forced into it, and one works to strengthen it, not to destroy it completely. Disbelief is what the enemy uses to destroy his victims. Disbelief is at the heart of powerlessness. That's when I stopped getting upset about questions of faith.

I have serious disappointment in literature, very serious. Writers I talk to about this, especially abroad, immediately begin to argue, although I repeat that this is my personal experience and perception. The greatest disappointment of my life (except for love, perhaps) is the disappointment with the very concept, the very understanding of literature (and love). Obviously, I imagined their nature and purpose differently.

As a writer, I cherished the illusion that I could change at least something in this world for the better with my words, contributing, in a way, to goodness. And it turned out that literature does not prevent the most senseless wars from happening again; dictators and tyrants are still there, and they even read books.

This is how they learn to manipulate our empathy. Literature does not reduce the amount of violence in the world. Literature does not influence the choice between good and evil. You can know everything about Kafka and still be a scoundrel.

I am surprised that you were contradicted. But if not literature, then what?

– Philosophy. I read a lot of it now, it teaches one to think and, therefore, better understand reality. Reality is very complex. Germany has its own context. It is difficult to talk outside of it. That's why I read Kant, Jaspers, Manes Sperber. The latter is my fellow countryman, hailing from  Zabolotiv.

The Sperber family emigrated after the pogroms during World War I. He lived in Vienna, then in Berlin. He is known in the German-speaking world, but less in Ukraine, although there are wonderful translations by Petro Rychlo. In 1933 Sperber left Germany, fleeing, hiding in Paris and then in Switzerland. He wrote something between philosophy and psychology, a combination that is very close to me. In 1983, a year before his death, Sperber  received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the same one Sergey Zhadan received last year, significant in the German world.

Recently I had to prepare a report for a speech at the "City of Peace" town hall in Osnabrück. I decided to read all the speeches of the Peace Prize Laureates beforehand to understand the German context. Sperber, in the year of my birth, spoke very clearly and intelligently about achieving peace. In his understanding, this did not mean surrendering, which is what you often hear from German pacifists.

Peace is impossible without freedom, freedom is the prerequisite for peace.

These reflections actually go back to Kant, to the treatise Perpetual Peace. Kant wrote it in Königsberg, never leaving his hometown. He wrote that only free communities are capable of peace. Tyrants force their subjects to go to war, whereas in free societies, each person decides whether they are willing to sacrifice something for the sake of war.

My conclusion was: if we strive for peace, we must fight for democratic processes worldwide (not just in Ukraine). Democratic societies are a prerequisite for reducing violence. It was not easy for me to understand such a simple thing. Sperber, a Jew whose family perished in the Holocaust, thought about it. He had already spoken of the need to create a united superpower in Europe to deter aggressors. Even then, he did not understand or support German pacifism.

He never returned to Germany. He was asked if he was so offended by the country. In the context of Ukraine and Russia, I am now interested in his answer. Sperber said that a great deal of grief kept him from returning to Germany. Not out of hatred, not out of a desire for revenge, but out of the amount of grief that a person is not able to process.

I wrote a text myself, right after Bucha, in fact, I forced myself to write it: it's a fairy tale about peasants who have been attacked and can't resist, have nothing, and then their domestic animals come out against the enemy. I described the retribution against the enemies with great pleasure, imagining how pigs and hares bite the throats of the enemies. Hatred towards all Russians helps some people, but what I have is not hatred, and I realized this thanks to this text and the rabbits, but completely natural anger.

Anger and a mountain of accumulated grief caused by the crimes of the Russian army in Ukraine. And I also doubt that I will be able to work through it within the limits of my life.

I know you've never been a fan of speeches or interviews because you have to talk about yourself and your work. And you're uncomfortable talking about yourself. But now, when you speak in public to German-speaking people about Ukraine, you speak from yourself, but not about yourself. Is there a difference?

– Take my recent speech in Osnabrück. This city is the birthplace of the German understanding of peace, and everything here is very symbolic.The Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the bloody and terrible Thirty Years' War, was concluded in Osnabrück. It was the first peace achieved not through defeat or exhaustion, but through diplomacy. In the town hall of Osnabrück, I gave an hour-long speech on the subject of peace. The audience clearly expected something else from me. In front of the town hall there is an installation: pitchforks stacked on top of each other in a high tower up to the roof of the town hall, each with its sharp end hammered into a block of wood, as if they could no longer be used as weapons. A declaration of a non-violent path to peace. I couldn't bear it and laughed: if someone attacks you, what will you do? You’d better save one pitchfork somewhere in the cellar, just in case...

To avoid being the author of violence is not enough, avoiding violence is not enough for peace in the world. You must also not be a passive witness to violence, because then you are just as much a participant.

I spoke about this among other things in my speech.

Were you heard?

– The audience fell silent.

Every time I step onto the stage, I feel a sense of total meaninglessness. I sometimes think I'd be more useful if I learned to shoot. But every time I perform, people come up to me – Germans, Austrians, Swiss – and thank me for what I do. They feel my doubts, they read my militant pessimism in my words and stories. My task is modest – to voice the Ukrainian perspective. I doubt that what I do can have much influence at higher levels. Although Claudia Roth, the German Minister of Culture, recently quoted my speech in Klagenfurt. So if one of a hundred of my speeches or texts has influenced one person out of a hundred present, then it is not all in vain.

My books, at least beginning with Forgottenness, are all about Ukrainian history, both contemporary and past, and even when I speak about my works as a guest author, I have the opportunity to talk about our roots, our resistance, and our literature. I have already organized several events on Ukrainian literary classics, and then I feel good, then I realize what I am doing, it gives me a lot of inspiration, and the audience responds. I come to life and generally consider myself a DJ of the famous Ukrainian dead! Shevchenko, Franko, Ukrainka—we grew up with these names, but they are completely unknown in the German-speaking world. Recently I started saying some really scary things in public. I say: I'm standing on stage and behind me are people you can't see. And I list contemporary Ukrainian artists, the names of those who are in the army right now. Or are already dead. Among them are people close to me. I no longer consider myself an autonomous unit, but I still retain the ability to reflect individually.

Representation politics, you talk about them, right? This list of names of your colleagues who cannot be on stage with you now—physically, is it a way of telling their stories? How do we tell other people's stories?

First of all, it has to be done as delicately as possible and secondly, it has to be accurate. I think it's easier for me to talk about such things in German than in Ukrainian. The whole process in my head is in German: I'm constantly looking for new arguments, words, stories, analogies. I know German significantly worse than Ukrainian, but due to this limitation, I can express myself briefly and unambiguously.

Franko once wrote that he worked for Ukraine not out of love, but out of a sense of dog duty. I am somewhat similar, like a dog afraid of losing its home.

If they didn't know anything about Ukraine before, now they know about Bucha, Mariupol, shelling and kidnapping. I try to tell them: Ukraine is more than a war (sometimes with this formulation). It seems impossible to talk about Ukraine with a certain amount of humor, but it is necessary. I trust my emotions, and I need to laugh myself because otherwise, it's a mess. My role, like the role of all those who speak on foreign platforms, is not only what to say, but also how to say it. An older Austrian colleague gave me a piece of advice last year: no matter what's on your heart, no matter what happened before, no matter whose death you are mourning, you have to be well dressed and smile on stage.

So, we have to go on stage—beautiful, reasonable, capable of self-criticism, capable of reflection, and capable of laughter. Knowing that somewhere at the same time, we are being killed.

How to smile in public when you have to scream?

— In my collection of essays, there is a piece about the death of my grandmother and how I write a speech for her funeral. It's two pages long. My grandmother is present in every text I write, but I probably wouldn't have written this particular text in Ukrainian. It was my way of expressing my grief and mourning. And, imagine, this text in German is quite funny. It talks about my grandmother surviving the Holodomor, World War II, and the insignificance of people who survived, but when I read it in German, the audience laughs and I laugh with them. A Ukrainian writer, I think it was Yuri Andrukhovych, heard that text several times during joint events in German and offered to read it in Ukrainian in front of Ukrainians. I translated it and read it. No one laughed, no one found it funny.

The inability to laugh at all can be debilitating. I love Hannah Arendt very much and currently read a lot of her work as a form of psychotherapy. She offended many with her description of the process of dealing with Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem – she managed to ridicule, touching the sensitivities of many. Later she apologized for it in a television interview, saying that she did not mean to hurt anyone, but that laughing was her natural disposition. She said: "I can only be justified by the fact that three minutes before my own death I will also laugh." This laughter three minutes before death inspires me too.

Short profile

Tanja Maljartschuk is a Ukrainian writer, essayist, publicist. The English translations include the novels A Biography of a Chance Miracle translated by Zenia Tompkins and published by Cadmus Press (2019), and Forgottenness translated by Zenia Tompkins and Published by Liveright