Our country refused to listen to the soldiers

Soldiers come to the market square, where puppeteers Sonya and Alfonso play a play for the neighbours. Since the army’s occupation of Vasenka, gatherings of any kind have been prohibited. Soldiers shout to the people to disperse. A boy, amazed at work, laughs. He couldn’t hear it because he was deaf. He was shot.

The film “Republic of Deafness” by Ilya Kamensky begins with this scene, described succinctly as if it were recorded. As the puppeteer goes to the dead Petya, the rhythm changes from prose to poetry: “Fourteen of us watch: / Sonya kisses his forehead – her screams pierced // into the sky, leaving garden benches and porch lights twinkling. / We see Sonya’s mouth // Nudity. / Whole nation.

Then something happened that the occupiers did not expect. “Our country woke up the next morning and refused to hear / the soldiers. / In the name of Petya, we refuse.” At eight, the bakery closed its door in the face of a soldier. “At ten, Moma Gallia writes that no one can hear you with chalk at the gates of the soldiers’ barracks.”


Russian soldiers guard an organized press tour in the occupied city of Kherson, Ukraine. The book has frightening similarities to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Language seems to be dictated by events

Ilya Kamensky tells of the mass resistance, “we” the inhabitants of the imaginary city, speaking like a choir. Individuals continue to leave this group, including Sonya, whose cousin was Petya. Her husband Alfonso also turns to his countrymen and thanks them that their previous argument “is now over, thanks for deafness”. At first his child was as small as a seahorse in Sonya’s belly, and later he would live as Anushka with Galya, the owner of a puppet theater.

The text has expressive power, descriptions are condensed into short groups of words, and verbs are designed to change rhythms. The densely written passages follow verses, some of which rhyme like children’s hymns, others of the tragedy of prayer. Language seems to be dictated by events. When you read The Republic of Deafness, preferably out loud, you are drawn into a sound space in which surprise, anger, and sadness unfold in multiple dimensions.

Tribute to Translator Anya Kampmann

The fact that this can be experienced while reading is of course due to the author himself, but also to the translator from English, in this case the poet: Anja Kampmann. She is best known for her 2018 novel “What’s Up,” and her book of poetry, The Dog Is Always Hungry, published three years later, showed more clearly what she could do. Now she lets Ilya Kaminsky’s words and pauses between them do in German.

If you are looking for a comparison of the original, you can find it on YouTube. In a video, the author recites the poem “We Lived Happy During the War,” and opens the current volume. It seems as if it only happened these days because it shows the paradox that many people have at the moment: “And when they bombed other people’s homes / we protested / but not enough, but not / enough”. In America, “the country of great money” is where crimes happen, where crimes are heard elsewhere, but where the sun rises and everyday life takes place.

What distinguishes Kaminsky’s poetry relates not only to his talent or talent, but also to his autobiography, both politically and personally. Born in 1977 in a Ukrainian Jewish family in Odessa. Spent his youth during the stagnation and beginning of perestroika in the Soviet Union, he faced the difficult end of the gigantic socialist state. He was 16 years old when he came to the United States and found asylum. He now lives in Atlanta and writes in English. Before he began publishing poetry, he studied law and for a few years in San Diego gave free legal advice to refugees from Mexico. In 2019, when Deaf Republic was originally released, he was chosen by the BBC as one of the 12 Artists of the Year whose work changed the world.

Kaminsky never knew his father’s voice

In his texts, cultures are related to each other. But Kaminsky’s experience with multilingualism differs from that of many authors who have left the country of their birth. Because he was in enforced isolation for a long time. When he was four, doctors didn’t realize he had mumps, and complications caused him to lose his hearing. He only got a hearing aid in the United States. His father died a little earlier, without Ilya Kamensky being able to hear his voice. “I got to know the world through pictures, writing for me is something visible,” he says in interviews.

He puts these pictures into words in a way that creates pictures for those who read them. “In these streets, deafness is our only barrier,” says Republic of Deafness, as soldiers bark at people who only point by their ears and crammed into trucks. Very porous barrier. The women who resist are taken away, as are the other women just because they are women. “Today they shot fifty women in Lernastrasse,” writes Kaminsky, speaking on behalf of Galia. She turns to the child of Sonia and Alfonso: “I sit down to write to you and tell you what I know: the child experiences the world by being put into his mouth, the girl becomes a woman and the woman becomes earth.”

Agence France-Presse / Serge Popock

A chapter of the book dedicated to Sarraj Zahdan. The Ukrainian writer is still in his hometown of Kharkiv, which is still under Russian fire on a daily basis.

The dictator has won

The country surrenders, portraits of a “famous dictator” hang in the streets. The author leaves hope in the secret language with which he associates people in a non-violent manner: “However, there are nights when the townspeople dim the lights and teach their children signs.”

One of the texts of the book was given to Sarhaj Zahdan. The poet and novelist is still in Ukraine, in Kharkiv, where the missiles are falling again. Ilya Kaminsky’s very own book, The Republic of Deafness, applies to universal humanity. However, this is an urgent call at the moment to think about the people of Ukraine.

Ilya Kaminsky: The Republic of the Deaf. Translated from the English by Anya Kampmann. Hanser, Munich 2022. 104 pages, €22

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