Paval Kastsiukevich: “I wanted to make people laugh”
Ales Kudrytski speaks with Paval Kastsiukevich about Belarus, Israel, literature and the lack of sunshine. Read an article about Paval Kastsiukevich
Paval, you write short stories. What is your ideal day for writing a story?
Of course, the plot should come first. My ideal day for coming up with a plot includes a relaxed walk in an unknown neighbourhood. I am taking a stroll, looking at people and situations. For example, here’s a recent story I’ve ran into. I was going to fly to Tel-Aviv. Imagine this huge dark building of Minsk international airport. In one of its gloomy passages I saw sculptures of typically Belarusian animals – hairs, bears, elks… and a crocodile among them. That’s a ready-to-use story! Do you remember the old designs of Belarusian money, with different animals on our notes? I already picture myself such a note with a crocodile on it. This is how my stories are born. Or, here is another airport story. A weak-sighted old lady came up to me. She was also flying to Tel-Aviv and obviously had Jewish roots. She comes up to me and asks, “Young man, please, take a look at the indicator panel for me – I periodically see nothing”. This is how characters are born.
Have you actually written a story based on these encounters?
Well, I haven’t. I am a bit puzzled at the moment. All the plots seem to have been used. Even old ladies like this have already been written about. I am a fastidious person. I wouldn’t just pick up any plot. That is why writing is so painful. I have written only twelve stories in four years. Writing a short story takes an awful lot of time. Besides, one cannot write an unlimited number of short stories in a lifetime. Etgar Keret barely published three books. Also, for me working as a journalist turned out to be completely incompatible with literature. It takes too much time. I’ve been doing some translations, but somehow I don’t have the wish to write at the moment.
Perhaps, this is somehow connected with your return to Belarus?
Could it be that you realized that people in Belarus are somehow different from those in Israel?
Not at all, people are the same everywhere. Most of them are good people. Nevertheless, countries are usually governed by rogues. It’s just that some countries are governed not by a single rogue, but by a couple of hundred, who somehow balance each other out. Most of us are good people, but we can’t really influence anything. The good is a rather weak-willed thing. A young Belarusian poet Vital Ryzhkou has a good line: “Every time the good wins, it becomes evil”.
What kind of people are your readers?
I have grown to value my readers. One can almost count them on fingers. I have been meeting a couple of my fans lately. They tell me their own stories and I appreciate it. In Belarus, the writer has become closer to people recently. I know many of my readers personally. It’s rather cosy and intimate. It’s not a normal situation, but it inspires me to write more.
What is the most valuable thing you offer your readers in your stories?
The first thing I wanted to do was to make people laugh. In Belarusian literature, nobody writes with the purpose of making people smile. My first story is called “Vacation Is…” It tells about a person from Belarus who travels to Israel for the first time in his life. There he is confronted with all kinds of misunderstandings. I scrutinised every single phrase of the story in order to determine whether it was funny. Stand-up comedians use a similar approach. My second story was less loaded with jokes. Gradually, my subconsciousness started to produce ideas, which were not funny at all. Many readers tell me that my last stories have become too dark. I even dilute them with jokes on purpose, to make them less depressing.
Have you ever tried writing in Hebrew?
Yes, I originally wrote the story “The Heart of a Tank” in Hebrew. However, it is difficult for me to write in Hebrew, and writing in Russian doesn’t make sense. My soul speaks Belarusian.
What is Israel for you?
We constantly discuss it in the circle of friends who spent some time in Israel. I think this is just a usual country, like any other. Israel had plans to become an ideal country, the light for all other nations, but it failed. Now this is a nice democratic state with a whole load of shortcomings. I like Israel, although I wouldn’t call it the centre of the world. Some force, unknown to me, keeps Israel from turning into a normal country. Maybe we do it to ourselves, maybe it is the fault of the rest of the world. Because of that, Israelites are not able to define and understand themselves.
Jewish and Belarusian nations both seem to have identity problems…
Both nations don’t know their place in this world. However, Belarus is five times bigger than Israel. The country is simply huge! Ten million Belarusians – this is a lot of people! Nevertheless, they either prefer to remain in the shadow of their neighbours, or, on the contrary, overestimate their importance. Why can’t they admit their own faults? This is what irritates me the most. Until we understand our faults, we will not understand ourselves. Belarusians know very little about themselves.
Israel is a multicultural country. Would you like to see Belarus multicultural as well?
Of course, Israel is populated by people coming from various lands. Every day you hear at least five different languages. The same day one person may speak one language with his friends, another language on the telephone and English at work. Often, they speak a wild mixture of all the languages they know. However, in Belarus, this doesn’t quite work. I don’t have anything against Russian culture. Bilingualism would be OK, but it simply doesn’t function in Belarus. I would rather see our state using a Ukrainian approach in terms of language policy. Officially, Ukraine is monolingual, but in practice a rather healthy balance of Ukrainian and Russian is achieved. However, in present conditions in Belarus bilingualism automatically results into the discrimination of the Belarusian language.
Historically, Belarus was populated with all kinds of people – together with Belarusians, there are Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Tatars, and, of course, Jews. Can’t this be a good foundation for a multicultural nation?
In my view, there is no real Russian tradition in Belarus. In our country Russians have culturally fused themselves with Belarusians. Ukrainians are too few, that is why there is no real Ukrainian tradition either. There is a Jewish tradition, but it is invisible, and, similarly, very small. The only powerful cultural tradition is Polish, which is also closely intermingled with Catholicism. The Polish tradition is being suppressed at the moment. As a country, Belarus has been developing as a monocultural state. I don’t even feel the cultural difference between Eastern and Western Belarus. Everything is very much similar. Unfortunately, Belarus adapted a Russian form of culture as its own. Our present culture is rather intolerant. Belarusians can’t bear someone sticking out, being different.
Don’t you have a feeling that Belarusian-language culture is just as strange to the present-day Belarusians as any other foreign culture?
Yes, this is 100% true.
Then, what does the culture of modern Belarusians look like?
I have just begun to study this exciting issue, and don’t have a ready answer. As a Belarusian-speaking person, I am often regarded as a stranger here. Fore example, there is this typical phrase “Oh, you speak Belarusian so well!” It reveals that people in Belarus are not used to hear their native language at all. In Ukraine or in Israel people find it normal to hear other people speaking with accent. Here it is different. Unfortunately, this country is very monolithic in a cultural sense. This also is a consequence of many Jews having left the country. Even Russians haven’t manifested themselves culturally in Belarus. Everyone fused themselves with the Belarusians. Of course, it would be great, if Belarus could be a multicultural state, with four official languages…
…Which, in fact, it was in the 1920s, when even the first version of the Belarusian Soviet Socialistic Republic state emblem was bearing inscriptions in Belarusian, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish.
This has changed, and nobody has really noticed this.
Have you experienced anti-Semitism in Belarus?
My appearance and last name are typically Belarusian. Also, moving in intellectual circles, I don’t really encounter anti-Semites. However, my friends tell me that, even though other people would not talk nasty directly to them, sometimes they speak negatively about Jews in general.
What place do you see for Jews in Belarus?
I like the way Andrey Dynko puts it: “Other peoples will not take interest in Belarus until Belarusians begin to take interest in themselves”. Alright, the Jewish people who come to my book presentations do show interest towards Belarusian culture. Possibly, I also contribute to spreading this interest. However, in general, the attitude of local Jews towards Belarusian culture is indifferent. Many of them stand with one foot here and with another in Israel or America, where their relatives live. Still, if Belarusians don’t care much about their own culture, why should other people?
Would you like to see the Hebrew and Yiddish languages used equally active in Jewish life?
Yes, of course. Both languages have been suppressed - Yiddish in Israel and Hebrew in Soviet Belarus. In the 1920s, the government of Soviet Belarus manifested that Yiddish was the language of proletariat and Hebrew – a reactionary language. At that time the policy of “Belarusification” was being conducted alongside with “Yiddishisation”. Yiddish-language schools and theatres were blossoming. However, Belarusian Jews also took interest in the revival of Hebrew. It is not a coincidence that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a key figure in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, was born in Belarus. “Why use some archaic language if you have Yiddish, which you speak daily?” suggested the Soviet government. In Israel, it was the other way round. Hebrew was considered a language of the New Jew, the builder of a new nation, and Yiddish was the language of the Old Jew, a small-town resident who passively marched into the Holocaust. Today the Yiddish tradition is experiencing a timid revival in Belarus. More books are published in Yiddish, including the splendid Yiddish-Belarusian dictionary. The fate of Yiddish strongly reminds me of the Belarusian language. Today, their sphere of usage resembles a burned-out desert. I can feel both languages disappearing.
In some Belarusian intellectual circles there is a tendency to include everyone who has at least some connection to Belarus into the national cultural heritage – from Larry King to Marc Chagall. What do you think about this?
This is a totally normal practice. Mark Chagall lived on this soil. He was painting Vitebsk his whole life. Ok, I don’t really understand some people overestimating, for example, Golda Meir’s connection to Belarus (she only studied here). Still, in the first phase of developing a national culture it is completely normal to appropriate famous names. Including Chagall’s heritage into the Belarusian culture makes much more sense than the attitude of the Soviet government of Belarus in the 1970s. Remember, Chagall wanted to send a number of his works as a present for a gallery in his native Vitebsk, but the Soviet authorities refused to accept them. He was not sending them to Moscow, but to Vitebsk. This means something to our country, doesn’t it? In Tel Aviv there is a French-run Chagall centre. They used his connection to Paris in order to include Chagall into their cultural context. Similarly, on the building of the Italian embassy in Minsk you will see a bronze plaque dedicated to Francysk Skaryna who studied in Padua . They used his connection to Italy and, in a sense, appropriated his name. All cultures do that. However, you cannot exploit this approach forever.
How do you compare the national Jewish and Belarusian character?
All Jews remaining in Belarus have practically turned into Belarusians. This becomes obvious when they come to Israel. All the stereotypes about the tolerance and reserve of Belarusians can be found in Belarusian Jews. Sometimes they even become increasingly Belarusian in Israel. Picture this: we sit at the table in Israel with a person from Belarus, who has never said a Belarusian word in his life. However, after a while he begins inserting Belarusian words, phrases. Finally, having asked half-jokingly “Are we Belarusians or what?” he proposes to cook some baked potatoes, just like at home, in Belarus.
Then, what can you tell about the national character of “mainland” Jews?
I see their character in their humour. When I hear jokes, I immediately figure out which of them are Jewish. By the way, now there are lots of people who are not Jews but joke in a Jewish way. I also do. I picked up this sense of humour in Israel. For example, here is a typically Jewish Soviet-time joke. A Jew emigrates to Israel. There is a portrait of Lenin in his luggage.
”What is that?” a customs officer asks him. “Not ‘what’, but ‘who’. This is Vladimir Lenin, chief of the world’s proletariat,’ answers the Jew. Then he comes to Israel. “Who’s that?” ask the Jew’s relatives, pointing at the picture. “Not ‘who’ but ‘what’. This is one heavy piece of a golden frame”.
Paval, having lived in Israel, don’t you find it hard to live in Belarus, where you barely get any sunshine?
This is indeed very difficult. I once got out of my flat in Minsk, and there had been no sun for two weeks. “A good weather can’t be confused with any other,” I thought then. Of course, I miss the sun. The lack of sunshine is one of the reasons shaping the mentality of Belarusians.
In your stories you often idealize the 1990s. Is it a sorrow for the youth, which fades away?
I’ve been writing about the 1990s and got a very positive response from my readers. Perhaps, this is indeed nostalgia. This was the time when we grew up to become Belarusians.
Which meaning did the 1990s have for Belarus?
This period falls apart in two pieces – before and after 1994, when Lukashenka came to power. The first part was like spring. I went to school in the centre of Minsk, taking a metro from the neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of the city. In the metro, I often saw Zyanon Paznyak wearing his famous beret. At that time a lot was said about the Belarusian language; we got passports with “Pahonya” , it was the spring time. In the second part of the 1990s everything reversed. In the 2000s things have become more balanced. The nationally conscious Belarusian cultural minority has understood its place and occupied it with decency.
Will it remain like this for a long while, or is it just a short break between major periods of change?
Who knows… Now it is the time to reconsider our values and think about what to do next. If you really want to change something, of course.
How do you see the future of Belarus?
It can be anything. Maybe, a meteorite falls. Maybe, Lukashenka suddenly has an attack of Belarus-fondness, and everything changes. The future is unpredictable.
In your interview to “Nasha Niva” prior to your return to Belarus you said, “In Israel I want to be a Belarusian, but when I come to Belarus, I start to doubt whether I really need it”. Do you really need it still?
Of course, I do. I won’t go away from being a Belarusian. This is something, which flows from my soul.
Interview by Ales Kudrytski for the ODB
1. Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer, famous for his short stories. The translation of his stories into Belarusian by Paval Kastsiukevich was published in Minsk in 2007. http://www.etgarkeret.com/
2. Andrey Dynko is Chief Editor of weekly newspaper Nasha Niva. http://pipl.com/directory/people/Andrey/Dynko
3. Eliezer Ben Yehuda was born in Luzhky, near Vitebsk, Belarus. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliezer_Ben-Yehuda
4. Golda Meir was the fourth prime minister of the State of Israel, often described as the "Iron Lady" of Israeli politics. She spent some years in Pinsk in Southern Belarus as a child. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golda_Meir
5. Francysk Skaryna published the first book in Old Belarusian language in 1517. http://www.democraticbelarus.eu/node/6098
6. Zyanon Paznyak is a famous Belarusian nationalist-conservative politician and public activist, now in exile. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paznyak
7. The Pahonia (translated as Chaser) is a historical symbol of Belarus. The Pahonia was the official coat of arms of Belarus in 1918 and from 1991 to 1995. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pahonya