“There Are No ‘Other’ People”: A Conversation with Katja Petrowskaja

Although Petrowskaja managed to piece together the story of this woman’s final days, she never learned her name. Yes, labels suggest predetermination, as if these divisions and categories were natural. Another is One Thousand and One Nights — the voice of Scheherazade, who is telling stories against death. We certainly can’t change the pace of history. Stories often emerge through coincidences, as the author stumbles across fragments and traces. ¤
Maya Caspari is a writer, editor, and researcher, based in London. And this doesn’t mean I’m relativizing history. Did these concerns form part of your decision to write in German, when you are a Russian-speaker? I tried to avoid pure sentimentality and kitsch, which is certainly possible, when one is regarding the pain of others. 
Humor is not just a joke. This kind of modality is something we have to work into our history. And, of course, Alice in Wonderland, one of the most popular books of our childhood. They — and this was typical — felt they had a mission to remember by telling the missing truth. KATJA PETROWSKAJA: This is how the book is subtitled in German and in other languages. I didn’t want even to pretend to have one explanation, or to create only one paradigm that is the key to everything. We can’t save millions of people. This helplessness was my starting point. For a British or American, it’s about the absurd. This childish naïveté was also part of a radical refusal to understand labels and historical causality as if they were natural or inevitable. There’s absolutely no contradiction between, say, a fairy tale and the discovery of a political truth. So, my parents told me and others everything in great detail. Can you tell us more about how you see your role as a writer? One of her Jewish great-grandmothers was killed by German soldiers in 1941, unable to escape Kiev, Soviet Union (now Ukraine), with the rest of her family. But I don’t know her name. So, it was not easy for me. It creates another point of view: like a clown who knows all the rules, but doesn’t respect them and answers his own questions. It was also a kind of modesty not to regard my book as a novel, although many European reviewers did. MARCH 7, 2018

WHEN KATJA PETROWSKAJA began to explore her family history, she found that the more she approached the past, the more it eluded her: deteriorating archival documents crumbled in her hands, relatives’ stories had vanished from historical records, names had been changed, and memories were incomplete. And of course, there was the encounter with Babi Yar, the ravine where all the Jews of Kiev were killed during World War II. This ravine is now part of a city of over three million inhabitants; it was part of my childhood. How did you deal with the particular ethical demands of drawing on material that often details extreme violence into your book? 
When you write about violence, you are at risk of multiplying that violence. If you write about World War II as a Jewish Ukrainian Russian-speaker, with your “kit” of Soviet war-prisoners and Holocaust victims, you have moral right on your side — you do, you are among victors and victims. History is a set of different possibilities. I consider the disasters of the 20th century as a common narrative, as our common ancient story. There shouldn’t be anything that says Jews had to be killed because there was a history of pogroms — that wars had to happen, just because it’s our nature. Many knew it almost by heart. It always foregrounds other possibilities — a kind of subjunctive remembering that attends to what might have happened, in order to speak about the realities of what did. And there were many reasons for using it. I am not better or worse just because I have a tragic family story. That’s exactly what I don’t accept here. Our reality was so artificial that the most absurd literature provided the best description of it. The uncertainties Petrowskaja encounters in her research engender the provisional, not-quite-historical, not-quite-fictional stories that form the substance of her text. Our official history didn’t tell us anything about the Holocaust, the gulag, about Soviet crimes in Hungary, Prague, Afghanistan, and so on. One more thing: In Russian I am an adult woman, in German I am still a teenager. But for us, it was a precise description of our crazy country and its rules. Why do you choose to describe it in this way? Legends and Myths of Ancient Greece by Nikolay Kun is how literature became part of my blood. I recall, restore, or experience only the fragments of a lost epic, as if the world is broken and you can find only pieces. For me, different kinds of storytelling coexist. Informed by her own experience of growing up in the Soviet Union and writing in a second language, Petrowskaja also thematizes issues of translation, the transformations that occur when writing across cultures, countries, and languages. 
While concerned with the material and emotional dimensions of what has been lost, Petrowskaja also writes of the ethical need to find a voice that doesn’t merely mourn, but opens up new ways of thinking through history. How to tell these missing parts in a way that is not violent or voyeuristic? I am confronting readers with mass graves and a whole set of losses to uncover. This is the level of “truth” we can gain. How to keep memory going and not destroy your own soul or those of others? I was taking a trip through modern Europe starting in the Berlin railway station, and traveling back home to the east, toward Kiev, through family legends, historical research, documents, and languages. They feed into a reading of history as if it were always linear — as if there is fixed causality. One might suggest the book’s ethics lie in this idea of not “being caught”? There are no “other” people; that’s a myth. You describe the use of German as a “childish” way of confronting violence. The material you work with is often very painful, but there is also often a lightness and humor in the narrative. The stories are just findings, scattered across an unknown space. The story of “the others” is a hidden leitmotif of the book — not a family, but neighbors, the people we come across. When I came to write myself, I felt lost, torn between the ethical demand to tell and the sensation of not being able to bear it. I started to learn German when I was 27. Were there books from your actual childhood that influenced you? Drawing on several generations of Petrowskaja’s family — including a revolutionary in Odessa, a prisoner of war who reappeared after a 40-year absence, and a great-uncle who shot a German diplomat in Moscow in 1932 — the book weaves together a multilayered history of 20th-century Europe. 
The stories Petrowskaja explores are marked by absences, bearing painful witness to the murder of family members in the Holocaust and the state-sanctioned destruction of historical memory. Nuanced, evocative, and often humorous, these stories enact remembering through the lens of “perhaps,” gesturing toward the other possibilities — potential stories that are present, yet unspoken, at every moment. Yes. I know exactly how she was killed, I have read everything about this day in Kiev. We didn’t. It is also a search for the right intonation. I didn’t want to have a “victim bonus.” It is my story, but it is not me. “Maybe” and “perhaps” makes our truth certain. Sometimes it feels melancholic, sometimes playful — or even both at once. Many! In a way, no “Esther” existed, but “Maybe Esther” did. She is currently working on a PhD at the University of Leeds, exploring representations of empathy and touch in contemporary world literature. How can one talk about brutality in a tender way? I also tried to avoid a sense of predestination. But, I grew up in the Soviet Union in a typical intelligentsia family. By changing the language, I wanted to liberate myself. Petrowskaja’s father recalled only that she was, perhaps, called Esther. 
Stories such as this form the basis of Petrowskaja’s book Maybe Esther, which appeared in Shelley Frisch’s English translation in January 2018. I was looking for turns, moments of bifurcation, moments of non-acceptance: a moment when you can change the shape of history, even if only in the subjunctive. I caught up with Petrowskaja to discuss the process of writing her book, her childhood in the Soviet Union, and her approach to the ethics of writing history. I used the word “Geschichten” because small stories reflect the “big history.” Moreover, the idea of a “novel” still implies an attempt to depict something as a whole. Not accepting brutality or violence is, in a way, very childish. We say “never forget,” and I try to remember. ¤
MAYA CASPARI: You have described Maybe Esther as “Geschichten” — which means both stories and histories in English. Why did you make this choice? 
That is the most important question! It comes down to how you deal with historical uncertainty: maybe Esther herself is an example. That’s interesting, in terms of how your own text interweaves genres and narrative modes. So, your use of German is an act of refusal? To write about losses one has to lose one’s tongue, even if it’s a mother tongue. The endeavor to write in German reflects the difficulty of remembering, and the hardship of talking about violence. In a way, my book is an attempt to make the German language innocent again, for me. Each piece of memory, each document or sensation demands its own method of narration, be it the simple ficus plant that saved my father’s life in 1941, the story of my Jewish great-uncle, who shot a German diplomat in Moscow in 1932, or the recipe for a strange drink, which I inherited from my aunt. German is actually the only fictitious element in the book. I had the secret hope of writing a piece of German Romantic literature: a Wanderung. In the English edition it is “a family story.” The book consists of 70 small stories. If I called her Esther, it would be unethical, a lie. It demands its own language of description. It’s interesting that you describe the stories as “findings,” as if you have stumbled across them. It’s also a matter of inner freedom, a step aside: not being caught. Humor is a way of thinking beyond a dominant system, a means of survival. I do not have mastery over the material — or rather, over history.