Twenty-five years after he and his parents fled Ukraine, Ilya Kaminsky went back to Odessa, the city of his childhood. As he explored the city, he did not feel that he had truly returned until he removed his hearing aids. He has written that, for him, Odessa is ‘a silent city, where the language is invisibly linked to my father’s lips moving as I watch his mouth repeat stories again and again. He turns away. The story stops.’
In Deaf Republic (2019), Kaminsky tells the story of a town, Vasenka, during a time of unrest when public gatherings are prohibited. Soldiers come to break up a crowd watching a puppet show in the central square. Petya, a deaf boy, is the only one who does not hear the army sergeant yelling ‘disperse immediately’ and he carries on laughing at the puppets. Moments later, he is killed. The gunshot becomes the last thing that the people of the town hear. From then on, the citizens refuse to acknowledge the sound of the occupying forces. ‘At six a.m., when soldiers compliment girls in the alleyway, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears.’
In its exploration of brutal state violence – and the consequences of silence – the book speaks urgently to the current moment. The murder of Petya echoes the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, shot dead by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet the story also has the timelessness of a parable. It lets us see the poetry of protest, both its power and its limits. For all this, it’s a story that never loses sight of the individual. There are moments of love, beauty and humour that hit harder for their scarcity, their bravery.
To talk about the book, I met Ilya in a stuffy attic room at the office of his London publishers.