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The carnival continues

Yuri Andrukhovych’s play “Orpheus, Illegal” is currently playing at the Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus. The work has been rewritten several times to accomodate the growing disillusionment with life after the Orange Revolution and Europe’s increasingly cold shoulder. An interview with Barbara Burckhardt.

Barbara Burckhardt: The hero of your play “Orpheus, Illegal”, the travelling poet and political activist Stanislaw Perfetzki, seems to be not only your alter ego, but also identical to the protagonist of your third novel “Perverzion” (read excerpt), who likewise travels to Venice to attend a conference and falls in love with the beautiful Ada. That was in 1996. What has changed in Perfetzki’s world in the past nine years?

Yuri Andrukhovych: The play and its characters are more political than the novel was. This is partly due to the conceptual formulation of the Dusseldorf project, which was aimed at addressing European phobias about Eastern Europe, and in part to my own politicisation in recent years. I wrote the novel in 1994/95, in one of the first phases of political stability in Ukraine. It’s a very Baroque, postmodern and polyphonic search for evidence, which is much more interested in trying out stylistic, artistic possibilities than in political visions. I finished the first version of “Orpheus, Illegal” in October 2004, although the deadline was in fact the end of the year. I knew that after October 31 and the first round of voting in the fateful Ukrainian elections, I would have no time and – more importantly – no inner resources for writing. It was all or nothing. This first version is marked by a pessimism that stems from experiences prior to the Orange Revolution.

The Ukrainian elections turned out to be far more exciting than people expected. There was the dioxin attack on Viktor Yushchenko and the week-long demonstrations under the orange symbol on Independence Square in Kiev. There was a proper, peaceful revolution and in the middle of December, you gave a rousing speech (read full English translation) to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in which you demanded that the EU accept Ukraine into its union.

Yes, it was a time of absolute euphoria. There was this feeling that the Ukrainian people who had been kept in a state of apathy for decades had suddenly proved they had the wisdom and strength to bring about democratic renewal after the brutal and corrupt system of Leonid Kuchma. This had never seemed possible before. European politicians flocked to Kiev and talked to us with respect, even wonder. This fuelled hopes which were soon extinguished. We were all hoping to hear “We want you” but after two months we were offered nothing more than vague talk of being “close neighbours”. It was a rude awakening, which I worked into the second version of the play in February to March this year.

Europe’s reaction was certainly disappointing. But the Orange Revolution also failed to keep its promises. A week before the premiere of your play in Dusseldorf and nine months after the revolution, Viktor Yushchenko got rid of his prime minister and fellow campaigner Julia Timoshenko with allegations of corruption.

My country is extremely disoriented at present. I feel like a child whose parents are going through a messy divorce. Yushchenko is a politician with integrity, but he’s also slow and hesitant. He’s a good banker but he lacks the charisma of Timoshenko, who’s a brilliant speaker and an accomplished liar. Julia Timoshenko has turned out to be a narcissistic, power-crazed figure who obviously only used the revolution to further her own ends, and who wouldn’t have stood a chance without Yushchenko’s popularity. It is no surprise that they’re going their separate ways, but nobody thought it would happen so quickly or that they’d be so stupid about it. The split has destroyed people’s trust and I fear the old apathy is back, based on the general assumption that all politicians are dirty. The only positive aspect, perhaps, is that this feud was fought in public for the first time. The overall sense of disappointment is huge. But there might be a silver lining. The previous government was a bunch of divas; this one, at least in part, is made up of grey technological bureaucrats. This could signal an end of narcissism. What we are left with is the familiar feeling that we have to start all over again. But since the Orange Revolution, at least we know that the people are prepared to give it a go.

In your play, Perfetzki escapes by feigning suicide. Where does he go? Where can he go?

If I only knew … In February 2005, when the problems were starting to emerge, I wrote a poem which still has not been published although everybody talks about it. It is a plea to Perfetski to come back, because this is his time now – his chance to start all over again. Perhaps he’ll do as I tell him.

The Europe in your play doesn’t seem to be a convincing alternative. The near-death researcher Casallegra talks about a “heart deficiency”, in your collection of essays “The Final Territory” you talked about the “Woolworthisation” of the old continent. You imagine Venice, the cultural symbol of Europe, as a sinking city.

My history with the West is a tale of disappointment too. After independence in 1992, I went to Germany for the first time and spent three months on a literary grant at the Villa Waldberta near Munich. Afterwards I wrote a text “Introduction to Geography” which is so euphoric, so naive that it makes me blush to read it today … I might as well have been kissing Bavarian soil. Around that time I also spent 16 hours in Venice and was utterly captivated. It felt more like home to me, all those cultural ruins, more unkempt than Bavaria, but much more picturesque. I saw Ukraine on the verge of crossing over to this fascinating old Europe.

And today?

In my countless visits to western Europe this year I’ve got to know the ignorance of the West. They know nothing about us but think they know it all, and they’re not prepared to learn a thing. Deaf ears are everywhere, stereotypes, a self-satisfaction that results in stagnation. There are no cultural perspectives in this self-satisfaction, in France even less than in Germany. In the USA where I lived for ten months in 2000/01, things were different. I experienced a very different interest, a curiosity, although this was purely within the academic world.

In “Orpheus,Illegal”, Casallegra predicts that an epidemic will break out in Venice by which he means Europe, an “epidemic of dehumanisation”.

Casallegra is a carnival philosopher. The carnival in general, not just in Venice, represents the essence of European vitality, of liveliness, of intoxicated escape from routine which renews people and keeps them authentic. This is a tradition which seems to be disappearing in Europe.

Carnivalism was central to the Bubabu project which turned you into a sort of pop poet in the years following 1985. Another Bubabu representative, Zuzu Mauropule, also appears in the Venetian congress in “Orpheus, Illegal”. What is Bubabu?

Bubabu stands for burlesque, balahan (a farce or chaos in ancient Hebrewand which went on to mean a “fairground booth”) and buffoonery. It is a collective project involving Viktor Neborak, Oleksandr Irvanets and myself, three very different poets, united solely by the stylistic device of irony. By the way, although we see one another very infrequently these days, the project would work as an ideal model for a Ukrainian government: we have tolerated each other for 20 years although we are all Ukrainian and as we say in this country, “For every two Ukrainians there are three presidents.”

We combined readings of our poems with theatrical performances and rock music. It was a poetry-carnival, circus-art, the highest and lowest side by side. We wanted to get away from poetry readings where half the audience fell asleep within 15 minutes. We wanted to make an impact, touch people, and we had audiences of between 12 and 400 at over 100 performances, in opera houses in Kiev and Lemberg among other places. In 1998 we founded the Bubabu Academy and every year we selected a “poem of the year”. The winners were invited to participate in our performances and were awarded a bottle of the most expensive schnapps we could get our hands on.

A high percentage initiative.

Yes, and it worked very well for quite a while. In 1994, we celebrated our 100th anniversary – which we arrived at by adding together our ages; in 2000 we celebrated our 1,000th anniversary. Then this year was the 20th jubilee with two performances in Kiev and Lemberg. We are really a bit too old for Bubabu, and the next generation of poets which is unbelievably serious, sad and boring is highly critical of us. The good thing is, though, that our audiences are exactly as young as they were in 1985, between 18 and 25. My novel “Perverzion” was really my farewell to Bubabu. The congress in it is called “the post-carnivalistic absurdity of the world”. But the carnival continues.

Yuri Andrukhovych’s “Orpheus, Illegal” next plays at the Schauspielhaus in Dusseldorf on November 18.


The article originally appeared in the magazine Theater heute from November 2005.

Yuri Andrukhovych was born in 1960 in Stanislau, today called Ivano-Frankivsk, in Galicia, West Ukraine. He has been publishing poems, novels and essays since 1982. Andrukhovych currently lives and works in Berlin on a DAAD stipend.


Автор: Barbara Burckhardt

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