Ukraine: Everybody's Business

One of the most common clichés about international literature in America states that we, as reader-citizens, only become interested in a country’s literature once we start bombing in. Go to war with Saddam Hussain; publish a ton of Arabic works. It’s sad that this might be true—it feels a bit Pavlovian—but there is a value to becoming familiar with a region’s culture and developing a context within which to understand various political stances, historical enmities, etc.

So, as you most likely already know, Ukraine has been in turmoil over the past few months, and, this past weekend, following the removal of Yanukovych (whose house is pretty much proof positive that this guy was corrupt as shit), Russia more or less invaded the Crimean Peninsula to “protect” Russian interests. This is all pretty terrifying. Russia making a land-grab and trying to delegitimize Ukraine’s attempt at forming a new government is pretty much impossible to portray as anything less than criminal and dangerous, especially given Putin’s recent press conference, which is rambling and insane and reinforces Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that she wasn’t sure Putin was “in touch with reality.”

I don’t know much more about Ukraine than that, the fact that they hosted Euro Cup 2010 (and looked like a war zone much of the time), that they have great soil, and that the country is stuck between the West and Russia—both of which would like to have significant influence on the country’s future, it’s modernization, and that wonderful soil. Which is why I decided to utilize our Translation Database and find out about recently published Ukrainian books.

The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko, translated from the Ukrainian by Nina Shevchuk-Murray (AmazonCrossing)

This is the big Ukrainian book that I’m EXTREMELY tempted to read. It’s 714 pages spanning the past sixty years of Ukrainian history, and seems like the work of fiction most useful in creating a context for recent events.

While researching a story, journalist Daryna unearths a worn photograph of Olena Dovgan, a member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed in 1947 by Stalin’s secret police. Intrigued, Daryna sets out to make a documentary about the extraordinary woman—and unwittingly opens a door to the past that will change the course of the future. For even as she delves into the secrets of Olena’s life, Daryna grapples with the suspicious death of a painter who just may be the latest victim of a corrupt political power play.

From the dim days of World War II to the eve of Orange Revolution, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is an “epic of enlightening force” that explores the enduring power of the dead over the living.

Zabuzhko is also the author of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex and Oh Sister, My Sister both of which AmazonCrossing also publishes.

The Moscoviad, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky (Spuyten Duyvil); Perverzion, translated by Michael Naydan (Northwestern University Press); and Recreations, translated by Marko Pavlyshyn (Canadian Institute of Ukranian Study Press), all by Yuri Andrukhovych

Yuri Andrukhovych is the other “big name” Ukrainian author worth checking out. The three novels available in English—Recreations, The Moscoviad, and Perverzion—constitute a loosely based trilogy, united by their style and the focus on a Ukrainian poet. Before getting into the politic side of Andrukhovych’s life, here’s a very selling blurb/copy from Askold Melnyczuk:

The literary dormitory at Moscow University becomes a kind of Russian Grand Hotel, serving the last supper of empire to a host of writers gathered from every corner of the continent, and beyond. Young poets from Vietnam, Mongolia, Yakutia, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ukraine assemble to study, drink, frolic, and explore each other and the decaying city around them. When the supper turns into a bacchanal, who’s surprised? “The empire betrayed its drunks. And thus doomed itself to disintegration.” Part howl, part literary slapstick, part joyful dirge, charged with the brashness of youth, betraying the vision of the permanent outsider, Andrukhovych’s novel suggests that literature really is news that stays news. Funny, buoyant, flamboyant, ground-breaking, and as revelatory today as when it was first published in Ukrainian, The Moscoviad remains a literary milestone. In spirit and intellectual brio Andrukhovych, whose irreverence makes Borat seem pious, is kin to the great Halldor Laxness and the venerable David Foster Wallace.

The above description especially makes sense within the context of the Bu-Ba-Bu (Burlesque, Balagan, and Buffonada”), the literary group that Andrukhovych help found, and which tries to “present a carnival like interpretation of events.”

In terms of his politics, Andrukhovych was one of the twelve writers to sign an Open Letter against Yanukovych back when he ran for president in 2004. Just check this out:

TODAY the Ukrainian (?) “prime minister” Yanukovych consented to the atypical fusion of the criminal Ukrainian government with Russia’s neo-Chekist regime, and by TOMORROW every last trace of Ukrainian democracy will have disappeared, just as this has happened with Russian democracy.

TODAY the Ukrainian (?) “prime minister” Yanukovych is rejecting Ukraine’s European future, and by TOMORROW every Ukrainian city may become a military base for Russia’s armed forces. The only thing left of Ukraine will be its name, hymn, and national emblem (there is no certainty with regard to the latter two attributes, if you recall the example of Yanukovych’s historical fatherland, Belarus).

Yeah. Then, in 2006, Andrukhovych received the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, and his acceptance speech, which is available in full over at Sign and Sight addresses, in part, the essential Ukrainian conflict—whether the country should be closer to the European Union or Russia, and how everyone should respond to that.

On February 20, 2006, an interview with Mr. Verheugen was published in the newspaper Die Welt. Mr. Verheugen – let me remind those of you who might not know – is one of the Commissioners of the European Union. It would be insufficient to describe him as an official person – he is a superofficial superperson. In response to the journalist’s question about the future of United Europe he said the following, “In twenty years all European states will be members of the EU, with the exception of the successor states to the Soviet Union that are not yet part of the EU today.”

Mr. Verheugen’s statement had a devastating impact on me. Yet again, I must give up my hopes and allow myself to express what I honestly feel on this occasion. Perhaps this is impolite, perhaps instead of gratitude, I will now start spouting things that are quite offensive. Quite possibly – in fact, most definitely – you are not the audience that deserves this, and this is not the right place to focus your attention on this particular drama. But I cannot not speak about this, it would be dishonest of me not to speak of it. It seems to me that the now erased possibility of a different future, the future that to a large extent gave meaning to my hopes and efforts, is reason enough for this neurosis of mine.

In December 2004, in that miraculous moment between the completion of our Orange Revolution and the repeated round of presidential elections, I was offered the opportunity to address the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The essence of my speech was a plea to the parliament and the European community at large to help a certain cursed country save itself. I told them roughly what I was hoping to hear: that Europe was waiting for us, that it couldn’t do without us, that Europe would not be able to realize itself fully without Ukraine. Now it is finally clear that I was asking for too much.

You may well have noticed that the word “Ukraine” was never spoken during his interview. Things were put in general terms: “the successor states to the Soviet Union.” But only in Ukraine did this remark evoke such a dramatic response. It is everywhere, in news headlines and Internet banners, it is being reproduced and analysed, first and foremost by the political revanchists, by the anti-European forces bankrolled by Russia, by those who held the reins of power yesterday and now call themselves the opposition, even though they destroy demonstrators’ tents and set their opponents’ cars on fire in exactly the same way they did when they were the powers-that-be: insolently, brutally, and with impunity. In fact, they are already celebrating victory: what a destructive blow to the president and his European dream, what an occasion for mockery at the very notions of European choice, European integration and democratic values! There are also those outside Ukraine’s borders who rejoice at this: the Russian Internet is flooded with headlines like UKRAINE HAS BEEN SHOWN ITS PROPER PLACE.”

It is fully understandable why things are happening this way. For it is entirely clear who Mr. Verheugen had in mind when he said “the successor states.” In the former USSR there is only one country with a European dream. And a year ago, it believed, as did I, that it would be understood.

But it turns out that in creating a miracle, we did not change anything.

Granted, a lot has changed since 2006, but this speech made me even more interested in revisiting Andrukhovych’s works . . . and made me wish more of his books and articles were available in translation.

The Lost Button by Iren Rozdobudko, translated by Michael Naydan (Glagoslav Publications)

In terms of more contemporary Ukrainian works, Glagoslav is definitely the best source (even if the books can sometimes by tricky/expensive to get in the U.S.). There are three that stand out from their recent catalogs, starting with The Lost Button:

In early 80’s Ukraine is stricken by perestroika and struggles for “democracy,” Afghanistan is in flames of a war where hundreds of eighteen-year-old youths are killed every day. Their peer, Dan, a student of cinematography, hardly cares about social problems anywhere on the planet. But one fatal encounter with a mysterious young lady in a picturesque corner of the Carpathians changes his life forever.

The Lost Button received first place in the “Coronation of the Word” competition in 2005 and subsequently was made into a feature film.

Depeche Mode”: by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Myroslav Shkandrij (Glagoslav Publications)

In contrast to The Lost Button’s focus on the 70s and 80s, Depeche Mode is set in the 90s and focuses with the generation coming of age during that turbulent time:

Against a background of social disintegration, slowly eroding Soviet mores and rapidly encroaching Western culture, the three comrades drink gratuitous amounts of vodka and embark on a quest to find their missing friend Sasha Carburetor to tell him about the suicide of his one-legged stepfather. Despite containing some darker themes, Depeche Mode takes an irreverent look at life; Zhadan is not afraid to mix philosophical musings and grotesque narrative with moments of slapstick comedy.

Serhiy Zhadan is one of the key voices in contemporary Ukrainian literature: his poetry and novels have enjoyed popularity at home and abroad. His poetic style and masterful wordplay have led critics to dub his trademark approach “verbal jazz,” a description that reflects his unique authorial voice. Zhadan stands as a witness to a time of great social change through the eyes of Ukraine’s dispossessed youth. His work explores the changes he has witnessed as a representative of the immediate post-Soviet generation in Ukraine. Never one to bow to convention, since giving up university teaching in 2004 Zhadan was involved in 2006’s Orange Revolution.

The Sarabande of Sara’s Band by Larysa Denysenko, translated by Michael Naydan and Svitlana Bednazh (Glagoslav Publications)

The Sarabande of Sara’s Band appears to be the most contemporary Ukrainian work of fiction available in English. It’s written by Larysa Denysenko, who, in addition to being a writer, has worked for the anti-corruption organization Transparency International. Revolving around a man’s second wife and her extended family, the novel has been praised for its witty dialogue, humor, word play, and glimpse into the lives of Ukrainians today.

There are probably hundreds of people more qualified than I am to write about Ukrainian literature, so feel free to overload our comment section with recommendations, thoughts, and the like. This really is meant just to be a starting point for becoming more familiar with Ukrainian culture and literature—especially in light of Russia’s recent actions.

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