Interview with Katja Petrowskaja, author of Pushkin Prize 2019 shortlisted book 'Maybe Esther'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What is your nationality?

I find questions on identity completely over-estimated. I am from beautiful Kiev. I am Jewish, have a Ukrainian passport, am Soviet born, live in Germany. But it’s better to tell stories, to describe what I love. The shortest answer on the question about identity is my book. One of the 1,001 reasons to write it was to avoid the short answer to “who are you?” Automatically you start to tell your story. Maybe it’s the Soviet syndrome: if you grow up in a system which always tries to describe you, one of your main impulses to resist is just to tell stories – a narrative which cannot be reduced to any kind of statement.

What is your background?

My first language is Russian. I grew up in Kiev learning  Ukrainian at school. If I had stayed there I would have been completely bilingual. But I left when I was 16 for Moscow, after Chernobyl. I later moved to Estonia to study. I lived many years in Moscow and I still love this place, but I moved to Berlin, because I just fell in love with the city. It was absolutely normal, peaceful city in comparison to the pretty aggressive style of Moscow. At the same time, it was a recognisable place, the reverse side of the second world war. I thought as a Soviet person and a Russian I knew everything about the war. But I saw all the scars the Wall, which conserved the remnants of the war. You could understand where the Soviet army entered. I was so moved. The topography and size were very similar to Kiev. There was something incredibly intimate.

Why is your book called Maybe Esther?

One young British scholar found a beautiful term for my “syndrome“. She explained it as "subjunctive remembering". The story is that my father told me the story of his grandmother, who was killed next to her house on a street in Kiev, on the road to my school. I crossed the place twice a day. That’s something that links the past to the present. I tried to reconstruct that day, and read two kilometres of books in order to see how it happened. I wondered what was the name of his grandmother and he replied “maybe Esther". He did not know! This was the moment I realised what I was doing. I’m looking for truth and the truth stays uncertain. We know almost everything about the circumstances of her death. But we do not know her name. That uncertainty was the most important revelation: there are moments one has not a right to be certain, it is not given to us. Maybe Esther is the mode, the main modality of the book.

Would you describe your book as a memoir?

No way, it was one of the reasons why I wrote this book in German, which I learned very late. In Russian it would have been much more a memoir, but I wanted a stereoscopic view, writing about Jewish, Soviet history in the language of the “enemy“. So the whole story is not my own, but rather anthropology. In a way, German is the main hero of my book and the main fictional element. While writing I tried to make it innocent for me. To call it a memoir is an incredible error. In German, I called it geschichten – history or stories. My stories are fragment, small parts of something. I’m not describing the whole world as a novel tries to do but a small part that I can enter – the cracks. It’s a mix of what could be historically true and of perceptions, which are already fictional. I always wanted to write something like The 1,001 nights: the idea of telling a story with another story inside it. Beyond all the uncertainties, I know it sounds very ambitious,  but I certainly have a Scheherazade syndrome: talking against time and death.

What language did you write it in?

I started to write in German just because I was seeking to describe loss, and I wanted to create the most difficult way for me write about it. In order to talk about losses, you have to lose something, to create the greatest resistance. So I lost my mother tongue in order to talk about loss. The whole endeavour is to try make the German language innocent. I grew up with this massive second world war myth. We’re really saturated with the war: it’s in our blood, our language. I tried to write between two languages. It’s so irritating that Russia monopolises the Russian language. This is the expropriation of language. The terms Russia and Russian have to be rethought.

Has your book been translated into Russian?

Not yet.  I thought it was impossible just to translate, because it is a journey into the German language so in Russian it has to be another journey, another story. The English version is a very good translation. It was a serious task to translate a book which is written in “unsettled“ German. It is still my book, but very different. In a way I had to write different books based on the same material in different languages. I am happy that I am not a polyglot. Somehow my book is already a translation in German but it doesn’t have any original version.

What is your next book?

I'm trying to write in Russian now. It was easier for me to become a German writer than to become a writer. I had never written anything before this book. It was an answer to “what I’m doing here“ as Chatwin would say. Now I can move in any direction. I have two simultaneous book ideas. One is a story of a set designer named Cordelia and another one, a sort of picaresque. It’s nice to dream about them, but very hard to write. They behave as unreliable friends.