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Despite the war: novelties of Ukrainian fiction 202216.11.2022
For some time after February 24, 2022, it seemed that the literary process in Ukraine would take a long pause. Publishing houses didn’t have conditions for normal work due to constant shelling. Authors and readers experienced a psychological numbing because of the terrible things that the russian aggressors did on Ukrainian territories. Many of the participants of the literary environment survived the occupation, lost loved ones or relatives, were forced to change their place of residence or go abroad. In the first months after the full-scale russian invasion, it was difficult to read anything but the news. However, we can already see that the situation has normalized quite quickly. Authors are working on texts, books are being published, literary events are happening (online or in shelters, but they exist, and they are quite diverse), the main literary awards have been announced and Ukraine is represented at international book festivals.
Of course, the literary process largely moves by inertia of publishing plans for the year, which may not seem quite relevant against the background of the intensive phase of the russian-Ukrainian war. Let’s say, until recently, I complained that writers ignore the topic of the covid epidemic, the catastrophic impact of which on society must be understood in an artistic form. And here you go, in many texts of the current year this topic is present, but it does not seem so important anymore… On the one hand, during the war, all other topics seem secondary; on the other, it would be too difficult psychologically to focus only on this, because obviously people also need texts that would help them abstract from traumatic experiences.
In general, we can say that modern Ukrainian fiction 2022 hasn’t lost its variety and offers the reader texts in niches that remain relevant in our literary process.
Fiction about war
Vladyslav Ivchenko. After the 24th (Після 24-го). Kyiv : Vikhola publishing house, 2022
It is clear that the main amount of texts about the period of the ongoing war will appear later, although we already have attempts to understand and record the events both in non-fiction and fiction genres. The collection of short stories by Vladyslav Ivchenko “After the 24th” belongs to the second group. The title of the book is, of course, symbolic: it was February 24, 2022 when the full-scale attack of the russian army against the sovereign state of Ukraine began.
As the author explains in the foreword, he began writing these texts with a therapeutic purpose back in March in Sumy, the city in the north of the country, which was partially surrounded by the russians. This realistic prose appears to be very strong and true, worthy of being read by both Ukrainian and foreign readers. Vladyslav Ivchenko brilliantly managed to convey the atmosphere of the first days of a full-scale invasion, when people were confused, but did not hesitate to defend their Motherland. He honestly writes about the fighting in the later months and the heavy losses for the Ukrainian army. We see how, under the influence of tragic events, the worldview of Ukrainians, who previously preferred to be “out of politics”, is changing – now most of them have become patriots.
Stories from the book “After the 24th” keep the tension, because at any moment someone can die on the front line. And almost certainly dies, as in the novel “Silence. The camera shoots the sky”, where not a single character is left alive. That is why the reader rejoices when a miracle happens and the hero survives despite everything. The characters in Ivchenko’s texts are, as always, ambiguous: there are absolute bastards who use war in their own interests; Ukrainian refugees who find themselves abroad, but cannot overcome their post-traumatic syndrome; a soldier from Mariupol, ready to die voluntarily, but not in vain, but in order to take more enemies with him.
Sometimes it feels like these images were taken from the news or photo reports, and you feel their voices live. This book by Vladyslav Ivchenko proves that it is necessary to write about the war not only many years later. It is worth recording everything that is happening around, right now, because these emotions are very important.
Andriy Lyubka. Something’s wrong with me (Щось зі мною не так). Meridian Czernowitz, 2022.
Essay writing in modern Ukrainian literature has long taken a leading position, and in general, our non-fiction can quite compete with fiction in terms of the variety of genres and the vividness of the authors’ figures. This is evidenced by the appearance of publishing houses specializing mainly in non-fiction, and literary or journalistic awards for journalistic texts. Readers always like essays on the broadest topics. Andriy Lyubka, a Ukrainian novelist and columnist, and now an active volunteer who supplies cars to the front, has thousands of fans. His new collection “Something’s wrong with me” is an example of high-quality essay writing designed for different reader tastes.
Andriy Lyubka’s texts are very confessional. He writes about himself, not about a fictional character. He writes sincerely and with a certain amount of irony. For example, we learn that Andriy Lyubka likes to sleep and rest; that he had read the entire Joyce’s Ulysses, but would not reread it; that he stole cherries as a child and they tasted much better than those bought with money; that he likes to fish, pick mushrooms, work on the land, and we even learn about the results of his DNA analysis.
The author’s position is slightly patriarchal. It seems that the title of the book “Something’s wrong with me” can be explained in a way that the author does not feel completely comfortable in a world where everything is governed by “trends”. The writer is annoyed by modern people who chase after illusory success, material well-being and external brilliance. He becomes sad by the fact that whole villages died out in Ukraine before the war, because few people wanted to live far from communications and work on the land. He finds the key to mental health in returning to the simple joys of life: “And while someone is prescribed a course of vitamins or sent to a psychotherapist, I want to recommend a better remedy. You don’t have to look for it long, because it’s literally under our feet. To relieve this anxious tension, it is enough to simply take a break from the news and ground yourself. Get off the internet, turn off your gadgets and come back to earth”.
Andriy Lyubka’s book contains many atmospheric stories about cities and countries. The author likes and knows how to travel, which is why he, like many of us, was frustrated by the travel ban during the covid era. There are also interesting considerations about writers – Herbert Zbigniew, Paul Celan or Milan Kundera – and their texts. And two really funny stories: how Andriy Lyubka gave a deposit of 100 bucks to rent an apartment in Kyiv, and how he tried to save money on a hotel in Pisa.
Tanya Piankova. The age of red ants (Вік червоних мурах). Kyiv: Nash format, 2022.
Historical themed works appear steadily in modern Ukrainian literature. Historical fiction shows the tragic pages of the past of Ukrainians, urging us to consider the reasons for our defeats and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Among the topics addressed by modern Ukrainian authors of historical fiction, the topic of the Holodomor occupies an important place.
There were three artificially organized famines on Ukrainian lands in the 20th century: 1921–1923, 1932–1922 and 1946–1947. At that time, Ukrainians did not have their own state. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was part of the Soviet Union. The Moscow authorities did everything to overcome the resistance of our people and their will for independence. The bread harvest was deliberately and completely taken from the peasants, who were doomed to starve to death. In essence, it was a genocide of the Ukrainian nation, carried out by the All-Union leadership and the Communist Party. During the Holodomor of 1932-1933, the number of victims was about 4 million people.
Tanya Piankova’s novel “The age of red ants” is right about this period. The action takes place in the village of Machuhy in the Poltava Oblast, an agricultural region in the center of Ukraine. Within a few months, the village turns into a wasteland, because people die of hunger, which was directly caused by the representatives of the Soviet government. Some of the characters find themselves in a situation of a difficult moral choice: side with the communists and receive rations or preserve their honor and die. In the author’s view, this is an existential conflict between good and evil. The image of red ants, which gave the novel its title, is demonic. This is a satanic force that is determined to destroy: “Red ants breed, gather in colonies, quickly spread across Ukraine… They spread like a river of fire spreads through dry grass fields… They empty our pantries, our chests, our pockets, take our mothers and children, they are destroying us, devouring us from the world… They are taking revenge on us… Why are they taking revenge on us? Maybe because we want to be people, to own our land, to grow bread, apples, and sunflowers on it? Because we want to feed our children with milk, not tears? Because we pray to God, and not to their red female, their great mother, whom they call Motherland?”
The plot of the novel is built on artistic oppositions. One of the heroines is the young Yavdoshka, who is trying to survive; the other is the wife of the red commissar Solomiya, she is an emotional eater due to the loss of a child and the indifference of her husband and she has to be treated for obesity. The destinies of these two women, who should never have met, intertwine in a surprising way, drawing other characters into their orbit. The text of the novel is extremely emotional, full of shocking details, for example, naturalistic descriptions of bloated people, scenes of cannibalism and the madness provoked by it. At the same time, the work is quite dynamic, structured like a popular series. The author Tanya Piankova is actively working to ensure that “The age of red ants” is translated into foreign languages and presented abroad, where people know little or nothing about historical tragedies of the Ukrainians.
Irena Karpa. Just don’t tell anyone about it (Тільки нікому про це не кажи). Kyiv: Knigolove, 2022.
Genre fiction is developing quite actively and in different directions in modern Ukrainian literature. Numerically, the segments of science fiction (urban fantasy, steampunk, technofantasy, teenage fantasy, adventure fantasy) and detective (retro or historical, ironic, criminal detectives) seem to be the largest. And Irena Karpa, once a popular author of shocking young adult novels, and in recent years an author of psychological prose, this year published the detective thriller “Just don’t tell anyone about it”. The title itself hints that the novel is about things that are usually hushed up, hidden in closets at home and prohibited from public disclosure: domestic violence, rape, bullying. The writer talks a lot about this exact aspect at presentations and interviews on the occasion of the book’s release, so that the detective component somewhat recedes into the background and one begins to get the impression that the novel is kind of a guide to overcoming a psychological crisis. However, this is not entirely true.
I have to warn vulnerable readers that about a third of the text of Karpa’s novel is devoted to depicting closed sex parties in the suburbs of Paris. Organized for wealthy French people, these meetings take place despite the quarantine, because you always want to fuck… Margo, a young Ukrainian, who works as a baby photographer in a Paris hospital in everyday life, has a constant lover, Laurent, who, in fact, takes the girl to these parties. Attractive and successful, the character, however, has a deep, long-standing psychological trauma that prevents her from creating a family or starting a stable relationship.
Untangling the knot of internal contradictions and memories of Margo is one of the storylines of the novel. The second one, which is actually a detective story, revolves around a provincial journalist who leads a double life. He is actually a popular blogger and wants to uncover the mystery of the enigmatic murders that are taking place in Ukraine and have a clearly defined focus. A rapist photographer, a debauching producer, a corrupt official who facilitated the sexual exploitation of children and teenagers, all die at the hands of an unknown Avenger… One would think, what is Margo doing here? Those who can withstand the descriptions of sex parties and read to the end will find everything out!
Ksenia Fuks. 12 hours of a man (12 годин чоловіка). Chernivtsi: Publishing House XXI, 2022.
The collection of short stories by Ksenia Fuks “12 hours of a man” is connected with the author’s book “12 seasons of a woman” published two years ago. 12 stories, 12 plots, 12 men… However, sometimes the narrator is a woman, so we look at individual characters in the collection through a female lens. The writer dedicates her book to all Ukrainian soldiers, declaring at the very beginning: “there are no real men, just as there are no fake ones”. Next, she shows her characters in situations far from heroic, but vital and realistic. The characters of Ksenia Fuks live in the modern world, not only in Ukraine, but also in Western Europe. That is why this book will be interesting and understandable to the audience from different countries.
What are these “non-heroic” heroes of Ksenia Fuks? For example, one of the 12 men is a participant in the russian-Ukrainian war, who joined the army at a very young age, got into the very hell of the Donetsk airport, survived, and does not want to talk about what he went through. At the same time, he does not like playing the role of an invincible cyborg: “I just hate hearing all this pathos. Because not feeling fear is actually not an achievement, but a problem to be solved. I globally understood that the lack of a sense of fear in the military is like the stupidity and unnecessary audacity of a motorcyclist: in any case, it will lead to mistakes. Self-survival instincts should protect and feed you with useful information and, above all, save you. Because it’s only fear that can save”.
Or, for example, there’s a popular European producer who shut himself off from the world in a house by the sea. He almost stopped eating and sleeping, and the only way out of depression for him was a woman from his past life. When she arrives at the character’s abandoned house, he begins to think that everything can be good, he will make her happy! But at the same time, the man does not take into account the wishes of the woman, who simply says that he needs psychological help, and leaves to continue living her life. The author does not condemn one or the other, does not portray the characters as “good” or “bad”. The reader can decide for himself how to relate to what is depicted.
“12 hours of a man” also has purely family dramas, problems of parents and children, stories about alcohol, drugs and co-dependent relationships, as well as perhaps the most optimistic (although I don’t know how much realistic) novel about transsexuality – when a man born in a woman’s body became a pastor of a Protestant church, and then dared to have a sex change operation. “…I did not hesitate for a long time with the decision, because I wanted to be happy, to be myself, because I had every reason to do so”, says the pastor.
Basically, every hero or heroine of Ksenia Fuks eventually makes some important decision. The psychological nature of her novels consists in the fact that she consistently shows how a person makes a choice and changes or, on the contrary, analyzes what restrains the characters on this path.
Translated by Maria Bragan
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