Literary roundup: red cards for Eastern Europe

Where to look to discover new writers? At MFA programs, readings, literary magazines?  Wrong. Israeli daily Haaretz tells the remarkable story of parking attendant turned writer Leonid Pekarovsky (or Russian art critic and intellectual turned parking lot attendant turned writer). Having emigrated from Kiev to Israel, Pekarovsky discovered that his intellectual pursuits back home meant nothing to his new country. So after working as a gardener and sometimes gravedigger in the military cemetery he ended up parking cars and spending his time in the little parking lot booth writing stories and poems in Russian.

Beside the personal story the article is also interesting in showing the situation of Russians in Israel – their arrogance in considering Russian culture so far above Israel’s (or seemingly everyone’s) and the fact that they can preserve their isolated illusions because after two decades many of them haven’t learned to speak Hebrew.

Field of screams

Back to Pekarovsky’s hometown, as Kiev and Ukraine prepare to co-host Euro 2012. Normally the connection between a sporting event and a country’s writers would not be so apparent, but as the economic, political and social crisis in Europe worsens it has become increasingly clear that these aren’t normal times.

Slovakia’s Project Forum Salon has an article by Ukrainian novelist Yuri Andrukhovych on his country’s upcoming moment in the limelight and what the added scrutiny is likely to show (Not to give anything away, but it isn’t a pretty picture). He compares his current book tour around the country to one he set out on five years ago and the change in mood and expectations is stark, to say the least.

“Five years ago Ukraine had drive. It seemed to have a future, even though the European Union wasn’t eager to raise our hopes of membership. Five years ago 85 per cent of our students didn’t dream of leaving the country for good. Now they do and I feel truly nostalgic for the kind of country we had in May 2007.”

In a country run by an ex-con and his cohorts (Andrukhovych calls them “the people from Donetsk,” the eastern Ukrainian city where the current president’s power base is from) Andrukhovych paints a picture of gangster politics in which everything from the rule of law to the Ukrainian language (President Yanukovych is not ethnically Ukrainian and speaks Russian) is being stifled.

That picture is complemented by the view of another Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, who sarcastically acknowledges his liking for “Ukrainian democracy” because “With enviable regularity “Ukrainian democracy” feeds me with plots for novels, as well as offering so many potential fictional heroes that no one writer could fit it all in even if he writes two thick novels in a year.”

The article appears on CNN’s website and is followed by a disclaimer that “The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrey Kurkov.” I have a feeling that those opinions are shared by more than just one person.

Beyond the bleak political picture there is the specific threat of racism and anti-Semitism that threaten Euro 2012 more than uncompleted stadiums and other irregularities. At The Guardian, Michael Goldfarb looks to the painful 20th century experienced by the tournament’s co-hosts to find an explanation of the xenophobia and racial hatred expressed so openly by many of the country’s soccer fans. I remember being in Russia and talking about the neo-Nazis with novelist Sam Lipsyte. He was especially mystified by the racism towards people who could hardly be found in the country, like black Africans. The anti-Jewish feelings are just as abstract and symbolic in a way, as there are virtually no Jews left in either of these countries.

Minsk 2011

Enough of racism and soccer, what about Poland’s and Ukraine’s neighbor, Belarus. Is something happening there that can give our spirits a boost?  Apparently not, according to Belarus Free Theatre co-founder Natalia Koliada, who has been in exile with fellow BFT co-founder and husband Nikolai Khalezin since just after the 2010 elections.

Living in London now the theater group has a new work being put on at the Young Vic called Minsk 2011: A reply to Kathy Acker (BFT had previously performed Acker’s play New York 1979.

Among the many problems facing Belarus, Koliada spoke about the lack of attention being given the country as the world has turned toward the Arab Spring:

“Belarus is not a fashionable regime. Nobody is talking about Belarus. Many of the countries of the Arab Spring have natural resources – oil, gas and so on. In Belarus, we just have people.”

Photo – Belarus Free Theatre

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2 Comments on “Literary roundup: red cards for Eastern Europe”

  1. JS
    04/06/2012 at 1:55 pm #

    Thanks for the heads up on the Haaretz and Salon articles. They’re both well worth reading.

  2. 04/06/2012 at 3:35 pm #

    Thanks, my pleasure.

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