Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky


Review by Marina Martino


Silence like a dog sniffs the windowpanes between us.

In the city of Vasenka, the population has gone deaf – not by accident, but in protest. How does one engage in a dialogue with silence? Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Faber, 2019) does so by distributing it from the mouths of many. Like Plato’s Republic,this collection is a dialogue of many voices; like a republic, their collective choices are inherently political – when to speak together, and when, together, to choose silence: ‘our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers.’ The book is cast with a host of intriguing characters: Sonya (the best puppeteer in town, pregnant); Alfonso (Sonya’s husband, almost a poet); Momma Galya (owner of the puppet theatre, instigator); the townspeople of Vasenka (always speaking as a chorus, always watching); the soldiers (but they talk little). Other voices: Petya (a deaf boy); the puppets and the puppeteers; anonymous.

As chorus, the townspeople compel the narrative forwards, telling the story in two acts – one for Alfonso and Sonya, and one for Momma Galya. They are not a perfect town. They have puppets, one theatre and many laundry lines; but they also have soldiers. Since they tell the story in two acts, ‘We Lived Happily during the War’ (the poem before the first act) could be considered a prologue, the premise of which is that within moments of violence there is happiness, and within moments of happiness, violence. They know that, no matter what, the world around them will keep disintegrating, ‘invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.’ They are apologising because they have been happy under the missiles, and found good things despite the gun-shots and the people falling like puppets. Actually, they are not apologising. Generally, they watch. They are not the only ones watching.  ‘Our country is the stage,’they declare at the opening of Act One in ‘Gunshot’. If the country is the stage, and the country is also the story, then the stage must be the story too. Its trees and streets; the sky, the wind, the snow – the parts of Vasenka that never had ears or speech are suddenly included in a communal space, where a democracy of silence is in force. When violence breaks out, even ‘the dogs run into the streets like medics;’ when deafness breaks out ‘in the ears of the town, snow falls.’ If even the town refuses to hear, how is anyone supposed to listen?

Be courageous, we say, but no one
is courageous, as a sound we do not hear
lifts the birds off the water.

A sound that goes unheard is not the same as silence. Although not heard, it does happen, and you never know who else is listening. Deafness in Vasenka is not heard, but seen. In the book, the illustrations by Jennifer Whitten show us the secret language that Vasenka’s people have created to communicate, which becomes the symbol of Vasenka’s resistance as well as the map to practically navigate it. It’s a sign language, inspired by the sign traditions of different countries, and it is shown to the reader while being kept secret from the intruders. This leaves us with no choice – if we understand the townspeople’s language, it means we are watching with them. Two fingers united pushing forward – an army convoy. Two fingers united that plunge downwards in the air – one scream: hide! Where? In Vasenka, there are public spaces and there are private spaces. To which does deafness go when it hides? ‘In these avenues, deafness is our only barricade.’Good, maybe we can all hide behind it.

Look! That is Alfonso Barabinsky walking down the street. If Alfonso is happy, the sun fills the laundry lines. The townspeople walk backwards into the shadows of the stage and let Alfonso speak. Alfonso tells us about what it’s like to fall in love when the snow fills every crevice and the wind has gone deaf to the missiles that bomb Vasenka at 4am. He tells us about Sonya, the woman ‘two fingers more beautiful than any other woman –,’ whose freckles make him ‘so thrillingly // alone.’ She who is the reason that, in the face of happiness, war matters and doesn’t matter all at once.

I am of deaf people
and I have
no country but a bathtub and an infant and a marriage bed!

She who is the reason that God matters and doesn’t matter all at once. God is present in Vasenka, but only in a series of marks like thumbprints on the negative of a photo. When there is a killing, people make the sign of the cross in the hope that God takes note of the evil – ‘may God have a photograph of this,’ as in ‘Soldiers Aim at Us’. When there is fear, God’s hand ‘plunges’ into people’s chests, but never shares what he finds there, as in ‘I, This Body.’ In his absence, Alfonso looks for the sacred in other places.

Soaping together
is sacred to us.
Washing each other’s shoulders.

In Vasenka there are private spaces and there are public spaces. Alfonso and Sonya’s bathroom, where they wash each other’s shoulders: private. The squares where the soldiers aim their shot-guns: public. The curtains behind which the neighbours peek: private. The streets where people are carried away on trucks: public. If ‘gracefully, our people shut their windows,’ even the streets can become private – what happens on them happens in the shadows of the backstage and goes unseen.

Momma Galya is cycling on the streets. She doesn’t go unseen. The town tries ‘not to look at her breasts – // they are everywhere’ but will never stop to wonder what happens behind the curtains of her mysterious theatre.

Madame Momma Galya Armolinskaya, what would we give to ride away from our
                                     beside you, in a yellow taxi,
                        two windows open,
                                    leaving loaves of bread
                        in the mailboxes
                                    of the arrested.  

Backstage, behind the curtains, Momma Galya has plans for metamorphosis. While everyone concentrates their eyes on the stage, Momma Galya orchestrates a silent resistance backstage and without waiting for God, she makes herself his arms –‘This body I testify from is a binoculars through which you watch, God –’ Good, maybe God really is listening. In Deaf Republic, it is not easy to draw a line between sound and silence, corporal and incorporeal, characters and presences – in the emergency of war, everything and everyone has to participate, be it with their action or be it with their indifference. Perhaps silence, then, is not the hand of God plunging upon you, but a thing you choose to do again and again – Momma Galya was right: ‘Deafness is not an illness! It’s a sexual position!’



Marina Martino is a bilingual poet from Venice, Italy. She is a translator and current MFA student in Poetry at St Andrews University. She lives in Edinburgh.

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