Between two epochs: Ukrainian literature in the period of transition

by EmoXMoocowEvery creative personality begins with learning of the world, reflecting on it and then reflecting it through their work — as honestly as possible. But it seems that in Soviet era totalitarian pressure on Ukraine’s creative minds was so strong and so masterfully organized, that many Ukrainians would associate Ukrainian literature with nothing but Soviet official policy. Obviously, with such background chances of literature’s recovering couldn’t be great. Nevertheless, regardless of the gap between generations, nowadays Ukrainian literature is marked with originality and diversity. However, this article intends to deal solely with those authors and books that vividly represent ultimate changes of life, psychology and structure of Ukrainian society taking place after the Soviet Union’s colliding and Ukraine’s gaining independence in 1991.


Both chronologically and thematically, the antecessor of good contemporary Ukrainian literature is Volodymyr Dibrova. His short stories from the Pisni Bitlz (Beatles’ Songs) series and the Zbihovyska (Get-togethers) series, and a novel Budryk are set in the Soviet times, but the mood of narration is not Soviet at all — killingly ironic, providing merciless insight into Soviet realias and psychology. Volodymyr Dibrova, though now living in the USA for many years, didn’t let American life to enter the circle of his writing’s themes. Recently a new novel by Dibrova Anriyivsky Uzviz has been published. The book won the Ukrainian Service of BBC Audience’s Choice Award.


Halyna Tarasyuk was a known poet in the Soviet time, but her prose works remained unpublished until when in 1992 her novel Smert — sestra moeyi samotnosti (Death, the Sister of My Loneliness) was printed. The novel depicts the crisis of until quite recently powerful Communist elite, and it is done with much greater mastery than in many other authors’ books dealing with the same theme. Post-Soviet people’s two dimensions motif of life — ‘before’ and ‘after’ — is also present in Halyna Tarasyuks collection of stories Dama ostannyoho lytsarya (The Last Knight’s Lady), written in the style of absurd realism.


The first Ukrainian book to attract readers’ attention undreamed of before has become Yury Andrukhovych’s Rekreatsii (Recreations). Back in the ‘80s he made a name as a talented poet, and later a poet belonging to scandalous poet group Bu-Ba-Bu. As a member of Bu-Ba-Bu, Anrukhovych together with Viktor Neborak and Oleksandr Irvanets took part in ‘imprezas’ of humorous and parody poetry. Soon after Rekreatsii two more Andrukhovych’s novels The Moskoviad and Perverzion have been published, then, after a long disruption, a novel Dvanatsyat obruchiv (Twelve Rings), and an autobiographical novel Tayemnytsa (The Secret). Yury Andrukhovych’s typical character is an author not much oppressed by the Soviet authorities, without money problems or family troubles. Witty and unselfconscious, this character has gained sympathy of both younger generation of Ukrainian readers and European publishers. Today Yury Andrukhovych is the most prominent Ukrainian author, representing the new Ukrainian literature of the Independence period in Europe.


If Yury Andrukhovych is the most influential «exported» Ukrainian author, Oksana Zabuzhko is to be mentioned as the most popular author within the borders of Ukraine. Once she also made her debut as a poet. In 1996 her novel Polyovi doslidzhenya z ukrainskoho seksu (Field Work in Ukrainian Sex) was printed and gained immense popularity. The novel’s character is a dissident’s daughter whose childhood was spent in poverty and fear that any time her father may be arrested again. The whole tragic history of Ukraine oppressed by the Soviet power is projected in Zabuzhko’s story of love to an apparently nationally aware Ukrainian man who, however, shows a shameful incapacity of understanding woman’s soul. Polyovi doslidzhenya is still a best-selling book, and Oksana Zabuzhko has become a public person of the Ukrainian media.


Beside other qualitative changes, one of the features of Ukrainian «Independence» literature is the unprecedented number of female authors, and attention paid to specifically women’s problems. Among the most prominent authors focusing on issues that concern Ukrainian women is Yevgenija Kononenko. Kononenko attempts to discover a special «female» world, very different from the male one and not limited with confines that patriarchal traditions impose on women. The discovery takes place in the spheres of psychology and emotions and is connected with revision of those traditional roles that the woman has to perform. Kononenko attempts to deny traditional stereotypes as being repressive and destructive in terms of development of women’s individuality. This is where the issue of women’s right to choose their own way in life comes out to the fore, with mothers imposing their vision of it on their daughters in order to prevent them from making their mothers’ mistakes. Kononenko’s stories feature scenes from life of Ukrainian women and their problems eating away love, creativity and life as such. Yevgenija Kononenko’s novels Imitatsia (Imitation), Betrayal. ZRADA made in Ukraine and novella Nostalgia, as well as her essay Bez muzhyka (No Man’s Woman) and numerous short stories are set against highly detailed canvas of Ukrainian life at the end of 20th and beginning of 21st centuries. Kononenko’s writing is impulsive, autobiographic and dramatic, and her narrative style can be defined as confessional. She masterfully combines dynamic, easy to read, pictorial, TV-drama-like narratives with insights into psychology of human social life.


Contemporary Ukrainian literature does not only keep trace of current events, often absurd and impossible for common sense to embrace. There are also attempts to comprehend and digest those tragic events of the past that Soviet censorship made impossible to discuss. Such events in the first place are those of Holodomor of the years 1932-1933 in East Ukraine and those connected to Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s struggle in the 1940-1950s in West Ukraine. Authors focus not only on the historical events as such, but also on ways they are nowadays interpreted by politicians and ordinary Ukrainian public.


It may be said without exaggeration that the best book about Holodomor in the post-Soviet Ukrainian literature is Leonid Kononovych’s Tema dlya medytatsii (Theme for Meditation). Before this novel Kononovych has written a number of books about Ukrainian «superman» Oskar, fighting against worlds’ wrongs. But Tema dlya medytatsii has proven the appearance of an interesting author who is able of combining masterful plot designs and refined language with real psychological depth and convincing strong characters. A Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky wrote in one of his essays that writing about great tragedies does not require great author’s skills, as the theme itself is enough to create an attention-grabbing text. In the case of Tema dlya medytatsii we can see an example of writing about a great tragedy on the highest level of literary refinement.


Speaking about great themes of the history of Ukraine and contemporary Ukrainian literature, one should mention Maria Matios, another bestselling novelist. This author, born in Bukovyna, has continually turned to the theme of Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s warfare in the years of the Second World War and after its end. Especially successful was Matios’s novel Solodka Darusya (Sweet Darusia). It is a story of a child who involuntarily betrayed her father and UIA fighters, lived to see her mother’s suicide, later became mute, and lives her years in a Soviet village in Bukovyna, a lame and lonely victim of history.


Many Ukrainian authors of the transition period write about the absurdism of Soviet life and the new ways that not everyone is lucky enough to find. The best embodiment of this topic may be found in Yurko Izdryk’s novels Wozzek, AMTM, Ostriv Krk (Krk Island) etc. A hard-mouthed drunkard has an immortal soul open to love, too — and you come to believe in this after having read absurd, tragic and yet masterfully written texts by Yuri Izdryk.


The most prominent among the authors who are half a generation younger than those already mentioned is Serhiy Zhadan, who also had his debut as a poet. Nowadays Zhadan is known as a flamboyant showman who skillfully presents his texts at both poetry and prose performances. His prose books Depeche Mode, Big Mac ant other feature savoury realities of the transition period in Ukraine, as well as author’s experiences of traveling abroad. Zhadan’s prose is polyphonic, as in his writing last remains of the post-Soviet discourse clash with the commercial «newspeak»’ of today’s Ukraine. Zhadan’s prose deals rather with modern discourse of post-Soviet Ukraine and not with lives and minds of modern Ukrainians.


So-called ‘alternative’ literature, which shows the world of drugs, drink and promiscuous sex from the inside, giving no moral judgment of it and merely stating the fact of its existence, has become a natural part of the world literature, both European and American. Perhaps the only one representative of the trend in Ukraine is Svitlana Povaljajeva with her books Ekshumatsia mista (Exhuming the City), Origami-Blues, Zamist krovi (Instead of Blood), Simurg and other. The rebellious spirit and vibrant anti-bourgeois views combined with refined style and rich language make Povaljajeva’s writing a prominent phenomenon of contemporary Ukrainian literature.


Life keeps going, and the same is true for literature. Sofia Andrukhovych, the daughter of already mentioned Yury Andrukhovych, is a bright young author. Her first works has attracted attention purely because they have been written by a famous writer’s daughter. But her novel Syomha (Salmon) that constitutes from a number of short stories has proven the appearance of a remarkable author with her own style and worldview. The novel is also interesting as a source of facts, as there are many nimble details from life of post-Soviet children and teenagers.


Day-to-day existence of the same post-Soviet generation constitutes the base of stories by another young author — Tanya Malyarchuk. Tanya experiments with both forms and modes of narration. In every book her author’s role is that of telling tales or gossips or presenting her own reflections. Tanya has her own way of provoking her reader — that of depicting things natural yet inappropriate to talk or write about: flaking nails, falling hair, dirty windows and other if-you-love-me-then-love-my-tobacco-stench stuff. Tanya’s characters are perfect in everything — including their triviality and geekness. The common feature that all Malyarchuk’s books starting with Endshpil Adolfo (Adolfo’s Endgame) share is that they all seem to be written about and for «that» kind of people. The kind you can not even call geeks. They seem perfectly normal at first sight, thoughts and fancies easily projected on one’s neighbours or relatives. But it is this elusive sense of ‘difference’ that is attractive, and Tanya’s novel Hovoryty (To Talk) brings it to the ultimate.

 This is original literature of the new generation, and it is able to give birth to those who reproduce it.


Publication arranged with MSBrand Corporation Agency

by Daryna Zhuzhchenko