His energy seems inexhaustible. Serhij Zhadan has just spoken in front of hundreds of listeners in the packed Muffathalle and received standing ovations. He then spent almost an hour and a half signing the books of an incredibly long line of people waiting. Um now late Monday evening with his ska band Zhadan i Sobaky to create a powerful mood in the Ampere: Even when some people go home exhausted in the last hour before midnight, Zhadan just keeps powering up for an enthusiastic core of young Ukrainians. A person gives everything in the service of a cause that he has recognized as being of existential importance. One of them not only found his role, but also accepted it.
Serhij Zhadan is somewhere between a literary star and a pop star, and he’s also something of a cultural ambassador inside and outside his country – not just since the German Book Trade Peace Prize. With a wide variety of tasks, often self-imposed, ranging from transporting aid for the military to performing in Kharkiv underground stations. He dedicated a defiant song like “Metro” to those basement children, the news from the war documented in the book “Himmel über Kharkiv” tells about it, and Zhadan also evokes the power of singing together in the Muffathalle. Its function is clear to him: “It’s about overcoming fear.”
The clarity that he has found overall in the past few months can be felt at this evening of the literature festival. In this “very unjust war”, Zhadan believes in a “power of justice”. His unmistakable message is to “remain human” regardless of the situation, to keep hope and to work on oneself: “The most important work happens within us.” And if some money for the army comes together outside of us, like when a book is auctioned off at a concert – so much the better.
Zhadan’s appearance can be described as the energetic highlight of the literature festival forum. And even if, for example, a podium at the Literaturhaus with his older colleague Yuri Andrukhovych the day before obviously seemed quieter: you can also approach this writer through music. In his novel “Radio Nacht”, similar to Zhadan’s new book, a QR code leads to a playlist. With this road novel, written before the war and set against the background of a peaceful revolution in an unnamed post-totalitarian country, Andrukhowych has undertaken a “journey through time” – and listened to a lot of music: “There is not a sentence in this novel that goes without music was written.”
On another evening, Tanja Maljartschuk, curator of the Literature Festival Forum, contrasts the music with the image: the authors Yevgenia Belorusets and Katja Petrowskaja each deal intensively with photography. In general, Malyartschuk had cleverly composed her stimulating forum “Being Free”, which is as melancholic as it is hopeful, and which will end on Friday with a Finnish-Czech panel discussion. Of course not everything is predictable at such a festival, not every round harmonizes; that’s part of it.
More important, however, are the traces paved with such a literary festival, which one can follow in conversations with authors and then in their books. And this time it is particularly important to feel: to let yourself be approached by how people fare in the exceptional state of war. When the writer Sofia Andrukhowych talks about the current daily air raids in Kyiv, during which one has to decide each time whether to go to the bomb shelter or not. When Yevgenia Belorusets shows a photo, taken amidst dangers in the first weeks of the war, that makes a food delivery boy look like a “messenger of peace” on an empty, sunny Kiev street. And when she adds that the building behind it hasn’t been there since an air raid five days later. How to withstand all this? Some make music, others write and grab their cameras. And yet, Belorusets doubts. Her pictures and texts were only recently published as a book entitled “Beginning of the War”. But what does it mean when nothing remains of a city, of a life, than a photo? “It’s not enough.”
Understanding the present in all its dimensions is perhaps only possible from a distance, at best through deep literary exploration. Like those of Sofia Andruchowytsch or the Romanian-Hungarian author Andrea Tompa, who delve into the past of their countries in novels like “Amadoka” and “Omertà” and counteract the all-too-frequent silence with their writing. In all clarity, because: “The literature gives no answers,” as Andrea Tompa says. Literature can only tell about people, about stories. “We have to look for the answers ourselves.”