Lavatory_Literature_by_punkie078If I was asked which book was the most significant one for the year 2008, I would say straight off that it was Tamara Hundorova’s monograph Kitsch and Literature. The author’s reflecting on and theorizing about the nature of kitsch is instrumental in characterizing some twists and turns of the year 2008 in terms of literature, to say nothing about the way in which her book helps to understand some specificities of Ukrainian cultural life as such.


The main conflict of the year, to my mind, was the one that occurred between two types of kitsch embodied by Mykhaylo Brynykh and Maria Matios (Lyuko Dashvar’s Moloko z krov’yu (Milk and Blood) receiving the Ukrainian Service BBC Book of the Year 2008 Award seems to be a conceptual thing — as all possible awards can’t go to Maria Matios; in any way Lyuko Dashvar’s fiction is but a East Ukrainian version of Matios’s one, a variety we’ll soon be able to see blooming as large as life, and twice as various).


Maria Matios’s Moskalytsya. Mama Maritsa — druzhyna Khrystofora Columba (Moskalythsya. Mama Maritsa — the Wife of Christopher Columbus) belongs to the type of kitsch that established itself in Ukrainian literature in the age of Romanticism with its fondness of folklore, demonic characters and tragic dualism of human being and developed through Modernism to become focused on special mental conditions, eroticism, necrophilia, theatrical attitudes and weakness for everything exotic.


Neither Matios nor Lyuko Dashvar takes their readers into a journey to some imaginary lands or describe any fantastic events. Apparent realism of their stories is misleading, as both set their stories into realities familiar to their readers, the action happening against the backdrop of day-to-day life in a village or a town. But flavour of realism doesn’t prevent both writers from creating the thrust they strive to create — that of incredible and abnormal emotions unlikely to take place in the real life, as a phrase from the annotation for Maria Matios’s Moskalytsya goes: «A story more tragic… is hard to find in the whole world literature». Thus readers get a possibility to put their real life aside, dipping into empathy for Matios’s Moskalytsya, who willingly let people consider her a witch and thus leads a life of pariah, and Mama Maritsa, who seduces her own defective son; and Lyuko Dashvar’s Marusya, who ruined her own life and lives of many other people, sacrificing them to her «tragic» and «beautiful» love.


Such fiction invites readers to realize and satisfy voyeuristic passions natural to human beings. Psychological tension and false emotions grant them affective discharge, a parody of catharsis mentioned by Theodor Adorno, who considered kitsch to be a means of inventing non-existing or false emotions and thus annulations of their effect.


Neo-modernist trends can be perceived in many books printed in 2008. Kateryna Babkina’s Lilu pislya tebe (Lilu after You) and Marianna Kiyanovska’s Stezhka vzdovzh riky (Path along the River) are somewhere between the worlds of real and fictional. Though it is not depicting of foreign countries (as in Mar’yana Slavka’s collection of poems Boston-Jazz) or fantastic places that makes them exotic, but the way their characters perceive the world, alienating from the reality and «marvelizing» it. Employing the notion of «sublime» as «beautiful» is the main stylistic feature of Sofia Maidanska’s novel In te speravi. Spodivayusya na tebe (Rely Upon You) and Ivan Andrusyak’s collection of poems Pysaty myslite. Both books seem to use prettycisms just a little bit too extensively. Nevertheless, both can be justly counted among pieces of «high» or intellectual literature that saw the world in 2008, as their style is sophisticated and philosophical.


Less complicated examples of the «Matios group» kitsch are novels by Iren Rozdobudko, Larysa Denysenko, Natalya and Oleksandr Shevchenko, Ira Tsilyk, Artem Chekh and enthusiastic Valentyn Terletskiy. Iren Rozdobudko’s Vse, scho ya khotila syohodni (Everything I Wanted Today) is a typical Hollywood-feature story of an average Ukrainian woman ground down by her husband and difficulties of her life being transformed into a free and self-confident individual who out of a sudden meets her true love. It is indeed what Tamara Hundorova writes about, claiming that «female reading, being a process of self-fulfillment, has its epitome in the genre of soap opera where the narrative form is instrumental for putting the viewer into a variety of situations that follow one another endlessly…». Women’s collective imagination of an «extended family» also manifests itself in sob stories, and finds its ultimate expression in Larysa Denysenko’s Sarabanda bandy Sary (Sarabanda of Sara’s Band). Though it to no extent means that men, who have found fulfillment in their family life are unlikely to like the novel.

Many authors tend to emphasize on relations between their fiction and film industry. In the case of Natalya and Oleksandr Shevchenko relations of such kind are crucial in terms of aesthetics. Their novel Kryvava osin u misti Leva (Bloody Autumn in the City of Lion) is a vivid specimen of tabloid movies with predictable story (in full conformity to Adorno’s statements of mass culture’s homogeneity and total predictability), sketchy characters and cruel yet happy-ending.

Though many tend to reduce contemporary Ukrainian literature to a mere apology of «having a glass of port in the gutter», not many novels of the kind have appeared in the recent years. Raving flesh, alcoholic oblivion and celebrating the power of rock music constitute the essence of Valentyn Terletskiy’s Rock-n-roll, stakan, kokhannya (Rock’n’Roll, Drink and Love). I would define the novel as a classic example of kitsch; look only at phases like: «Love is a drug more adductive than life», «We all are going to die — it’s a law. You’ll die, and you, and you too»! And with ones like «she plays fugues on your prick» or «you can feel the volcanic power of her orgasm» the author could rival Susan Elizabeth Phillips. However novel from Terletskiy looks like memoirs, and its possible sequel likely has to be a story of hooligan and womanizer Valusha’s redemption.


I would like to emphasize on the tendency. It seems aesthetics of the like of Serhiy Zhadan’s Depeche Mode is currently fading into past. Artem Chekh’s Anatomichny atlas (Anatomical Handbook), a rather lame story of «riotous nonage», reveals the new «young generation’s choice» — that of leaving slackers’ lifestyle behind. If Chekh only provides some hints of such possibility, in Ira Tsilyk’s Pislyavchora (The Day after Yesterday) it takes more solid shape. The story of her heroine Kira Butsim’s way to professional success seems to be able of becoming a new myth for modern young people, re-aesthetizing both «the American dream» and Soviet «factory ground» as a place where one can start a successful career.


All the above mentioned books are kitsch as they promote aestheticism, romance aura, nostalgia, and schmaltziness boarding with infantilism. The latter is an essential feature of modern literary discourse, and it is no way by accidence that several children’s books entered the finale of the BBC Book of the Year 2008 (it is the second time that I have to refer to this contest, as it turned out to be the ultimate literary event of the year). Kitsch eagerly reads one of the most expressive modern world’s images — that of childhood — into a form of escapism (adults escape into children’s world). Ivan Andrysyak’s Stefa i yiyi Chakalka provides a bright example of what can be defined as children’s fiction for adults.


Not much stands against this type of literature; that is why it is already possible to regard Mykhaylo Brynykh as an iconic writer of the year 2008. His Shakhmaty dlya dybiliv (Chess for Morons) belongs to a different type of kitsch — that descended from 18-th century Ukrainian author Ivan Kotlyarevskiy’s Aeneid and continued by Bu-Ba-Bu late 1980-s literary group’s traditions of carnival, irony, postmodernist play and hoax, and dramatis Les’ Poderevyansky’s cynical and obscene plays that have documented destruction of both official Soviet and «high» modernist culture, providing the pleasure of breaking all the moulds.

The above-listed features are also characteristic of Brynykh’s Shakhmaty, the author dropping readers from philosophical heights into disgraceful naturalism, fiddling with culture codes and symbols (including those of mass culture), mocking them and at the same time viewing the narrative from eschatological angle, that of the last game of chess as the ultimate battle between God and the Devil. Similar experiments can be perceived in one more book from the year 2008 — Andriy Zhurakivskiy’s collection Satelity (Satellites). The author easily tears his reader’s attention from uncle Romtso, who fell into the outhouse’s bench-hole, to fantastic cyberspace or the Wonderland.

One of the most scandalous aspects of Shakhmaty is its language, as high literature’s crusaders still view surzhik (Ukrainian-Russian, the pidgin of two languages) as a sign of bad taste. However, in Shakhmaty surzhik is not a means of bringing the narration closer to the reader, but rather a tool of constructing a different fictional world — a kind of «posh» surzhik, an attribute of kitsch creating a parody of «high literature». Brynykh’s success seems to be naturally determined, Shakhmaty standing out on the monotonous background of pseudo-beautiful neo-Modernist literature or «white collar» fiction. Though in such case, as Hundorova states, ‘intellectual pressure’ may be applied, and a person, constantly reminded of how Cézanne, Van Gogh or Picasso were at first unaccepted too, is pushed to praise what they in fact dislike — surzhik or cynical jokes.


The only means of resisting this attitude seems to be healthy irony. And Tilo i dolya (Body and Fate), a novel by Taras Antypovych, who belongs to the «Brynykh group», confirms the statement. In this review I deliberately place his book among works belonging to a quite different type of literature — poems by Bohdana Matiash, Marianna Kiyanovska, and Dmytro Lazutkin, diverse, but referring to the same issues. This may be the type of kitsch that Hundorova does not examine, that is religion speculating kitsch, or an attempt to break the mould of kitsch.

Matiash’s collection of poems Rozmovy z Bohom (Talking to God) stands closest to the standards of kitsch. Sentimentality and infantilism reign, and God looks cozy and domesticated, a kind of «evening tea God». Marianna Kiyanovska’s collection of poems Descho Schodenne (Something Casual) deals with «heavier» themes, but her poetry is wholly extensive, focused on a number of main topics and using a limited range of images, accompanied with general pathos that an average reader is unlikely to understand. As to Dmytro Lazutkin’s Benzyn (Benzine), an attentive reader would say, it is certainly not about God, but about love! Yes, but the book undeniably brings a new zest into the young poet’s verses. Alongside with creating purely postmodernist image of cruel God as a sniper, Lazutkin claims to be ready to take responsibility for the earthly existence, thus following the way of Christ: «I have taken you in my hands and I’ll bear you».


Such motives in contemporary Ukrainian poetry gain special significance in Antypovych’s Tilo i dolya. Freedom, responsibility, love, sin, betrayal, revenge — these and other eternal issues are solved in the book through grotesque and blatantly burlesque images, realistic in terms of form and unreal in terms of sense, employing all the components of kitsch: surzhik, irony, sarcasm, parody, blend of styles and symbols etc. Maybe this is the way a modern author should use to speak to his reader of the most important things in life, without excessive pathos, but not reducing his work to ordinary clownery.


Publication arranged with MSBrand Corporation Agency


by Tetyana Trofymenko