Deaf Republic: Ilya Kaminsky’s strength

Deaf Republic depicts the story of the oppressive and violent military occupation of the universal city of Vasenka. Still, especially it is the story of the dogged and desperate resistance of its citizens. Ilya Kaminsky, born in Ukraine in the late 1970s, wrote and published Deaf Republic in the USA in 2019: his storytelling represented a reality then and continues, unfortunately, to represent it today, most vivid in our daily lives.

What is Deaf Republic

Deaf Republic starts with verses that could – and should – be included in school anthologies in all parts of the globe:

We lived happily during the war 
And when they bombed other people’s 
houses, we protested 
but not enough, we opposed them but not enough. 
I was in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible 
house by invisible house – 
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month 
of a disastrous reign in the house of money 
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money, 
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.

from We lived happily during the war

Immediately, the story becomes action and Kaminsky uses the dramatic device to arrange his work: after introducing the Dramatis Personae (the soldiers and the people of Vasenka), the plot splits into two acts in which violence, oppression and abuse, de facto personified, are, to all intents and purposes, co-protagonists with the people of Vasenka: 

SOLDIERS arrive in Vasenka to “protect our freedom”, speaking a language no one understands.

from Dramatis Personae

Deaf Republic first and foremost is a fictional but living place, featuring the universal, dystopian city of Vasenka, where an ideological dichotomy coexists: the ex-Soviet universe mingled with the American one. Vasenka experiences forced military occupation, in an undefined historical moment that contains and relates to all similar historical moments. And it is at this point that, during a village protest, the soldiers, in attempting to sedate it, kill Petya, a deaf boy. 

Ilya Kaminsky reading his poems

The shooting will be the last sound to be heard by the population of Vasenka:

When Petya, the deaf boy in the front row, sneezes, the Sergeant puppet collapses, shrieking. He stands up again, snorts, shakes his fist at the laughing audience. 
Everyone freezes except Petya, who keeps giggling. Someone claps a hand over his mouth. The Sergeant turns toward the boy, raising his finger. 
You! the puppet raises a finger. 
Sonya watches her puppet, the puppet watches the Sergeant, the Sergeant watches Sonya and Alfonso, but the rest of us watch Petya lean back, gather all the spit in his throat, and launch it at the Sergeant. 
The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.
from Gunshot

The town of Vasenka collapses from this point, and then plunges into collective deafness, which represents, together with the invention of sign language, an act of peaceful rebellion and silent resistance of the population to the noisy oppressor:

Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. 
In the name of Petya, we refuse. 
Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens. 
In the ears of the town, snow falls.

from Deafness, as Insurgency, begins

Dramatis personae: war weather

The war act inevitably and irretrievably entangles itself with the personal stories of the people of Vasenka; Sonya and Alfonso, recently married, on their lips still the memory of their wedding day, the promise of a future:

Yes, I bought you a wedding dress big enough for the two of us
and in the taxi home 
we kissed a coin from your mouth to mine. 
You are two fingers more beautiful than any other woman – 
I am not a poet, Sonya, 
I want to live in your hair.

from Of wedding before the War 

And still, with touching bitterness:

You step out of the shower and the entire
nation calms – 
a drop of lemon-egg shampoo, 
you smell like bees, 
a brief kiss, 
I don’t know anything about you – except 
the spray of freckles on your shoulder!
from Still Newlyweds

However, Sonya, a new bride, is also pregnant; the joy of birth, despite being surrounded by human misery, gives hope and grants a moment of light. Life and death swap the scene:

You arrive at noon, little daughter, weighing only six pounds.
[…] In the nursery, quiet hisses like a match dropped in water.
from Arrival

And, immediately afterwards, a question breaks the narrative:

What is a child?
A quiet between two bombardments.

from Question

Daily life is made up of bombed-out streets and the lack of a future, and Kaminsky evokes sharp images that lead us straight there, astonished and unarmed spectators:

In a bombed-out street, wind moves the lips of a politician on a poster. Inside, the child Sonya named Anushka suckles. Not sleeping, Alfonso touches his wife’s nipple, pulls to his lips a pearl of milk.
from A dog sniffs 

Sonya and Alfonso will not survive the first act of the play. The orphaned Anushka will be cherished, in the second dramatic ‘act’, by a new character in Vasenka: Momma Galya Armolinskaya. 

Galya is first introduced by the citizens’ chorus:

Momma Galya Armolinskaya, 53, is having more sex than any of us. 
When she walks across the balcony
a soldier oh stands up, 
another stands, 
then the whole battalion. 
Galya Armolinskaya, the luckiest woman in our nation!
Your iron bicycle tearing with bright
whiskey anthems
through an advancing rank of soldiers into
daylight. You pedal barefoot wearing just
from Townspeople speak of Galya on her green bicycle 

Momma Galya became the symbol of resistance, the leading light in the gloom of war:

Momma Galya Armonilskaya, 
by the avenue’s wet walls, yells: 
Deafness isn’t an illness! It’s a sexual position!
A young soldier patrolling a curfew whispers, 
Galya Armolinskaya, yes, Galya Armolinskaya
whipped a Lieutenant with the leash of his own patrol dog
and there were thirty-two persons watching 
(for a baker insisted on bringing his sons). 
[…] In a time of war
she teaches us how to open the door 
and walk
which is the true curriculum of schools.
from When Momma Galya first protested 

Momma Galya is the person who galvanises resistance, then: the owner of the puppet theatre where, together with her fellow puppeteers, she lures the soldiers with trickery and then kills them behind the scenes; the one who promotes the silent act of rebellion and the one who also teaches, with the complicity of the night, the language of signs, the battle symbol:

Behind the curtains of the theatre, a puppeteer glides her lips over the soldier Ivanoff’s penis. […] Beautiful are the women of Vasenka, beautiful. When she licks the palm of his hand, he laughs. When finally he passes out, she strangles him with a puppet-string. As the soldiers lined up downstairs raise a toast to Momma Galya, they don’t see the puppeteers drag the body out back.
from Galya’s Puppeteers

Urgency of resistance

Deaf Republic is a must-read book, not only at this dreadful historical moment. Deaf Republic is a statement of membership in the human congregation, which each of us should endorse.

Deaf Republic is a compelling read, one that I recommend it unconditionally to everyone: Ilya Kaminsky, through his unique poetic sensibility and uncannily canonical use of dramatic structure, leads us into a harsh world, where a gesture can result in a death sentence, but, in the same world, the same gesture can represent a bountiful act of rebellion. This should be a recurring thought, and we should also remember that war did not start on 24 February 2022, but in some places in the world, it has never stopped.


Kaminsky. Ilya. 2019. “Deaf Republic“. Faber.

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