Pages on War


War novels and books from the times and places of war form an integral part of literature. This theme has been amply represented, starting with epic stories of ancient heroes all the way to Remarque or Hemingway. The contemporary reader's general perspective, however, often views the war topic as something confined to the realm of history, as something many years or kilometres removed from our present day reality. The Ukrainian authors have no choice but to approach this theme from a very different angle indeed, as the war gripping the east of their country has become their current reality. The discussion held on Thursday afternoon in the National Museum's Lapidarium, moderated by Alyona Kuhar and attended by the Ukrainian writers Kateryna Kalytko and Iryna Tsilyk, and the Czech writer Jáchym Topol, proved very interesting indeed.

"We can safely say that since the breakup of the Soviet Union modern Ukrainian literature has hardly paid any attention to war as a literary topic at all," Iryna Tsilyk said. "Within the last four years, however, the situation has changed. Some two hundred books have been published, both prose and poetry, that deal with war. This topic is akin to thin ice, as in the more pathetic vein it is easy to drift towards mainstream. It is very important to find the right way of addressing it. My own perception is also formed by my personal experience. My husband has been at the battle front and currently makes his second film in the battle zone, and I can see how this also changes my point of view. In the beginning it was very black and white but now I am trying to look more closely at the people in the war zone and the events that surround them. I am striving for a more documentary point of view, because so far it is difficult to reach some kind of objective reflection." Kateryna Kalytko added, "A great number of literary works speak about war, the war that the Ukrainian nation wages without end. We could talk about several generations being involved in a war in various ways. A part of it is this very interesting phenomenon of silence. Silence that grows out of the fear of being destroyed. For that reason there are many things which we do not say out loud. Thanks to the current Ukrainian-Russian war all the barriers have fallen and the silence has ended. From my own experience I can see that the war has become a key topic for me today. We can see that history is being repeated, that the topic of collective memory is emerging."

Another level of debate was provoked by Jáchym Topol's question if Ukraine's current situation could actually bring the writers something interesting, something which, somewhat blasphemously said, writers from some of the "boring countries where nothing ever happens" could envy their Ukrainian counterparts. "One could say, against the backdrop of the processes that we are seeing now, that prior to the war Ukraine had indeed been, in terms of literature, a not very interesting country, working quite comfortably in its postmodern mode," Iryna Tsilyk admitted. "Now all this is changing and I can see that Ukraine's literature is becoming more serious, more interesting, and that it delves deeper. Every war is a clash of cultures in the most dramatic sense of the word, and therefore also a space of how to transgress the established boundaries." These and other topics, including the influence of the Russian authors writing about war - Polevoy, Sholokhov or Bondarev - were discussed on Thursday during the debate entitled How to Write a War.