Chytomo Picks

Time, the evil genius, in ‘Forgottenness’ by Tanja Maljartschuk


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An English translation of Forgottenness”, a novel by Ukrainian writer Tanja Maljartschuk about the search for the meaning of life and the transient nature of time, was presented by Liveright Publishing Corporation (translated by Zenia Tompkins) at the end of January. Generally regarded as one of the best Ukrainian literary works of the 2010s, this novel is worth reading both for getting familiar with and from the point of simply enjoying prose we value so much.

Tanja Maljartschuk is a popular author in Ukraine who became well-known for her poetry and prose in the early 2000s. Her works, deeply intellectual and autobiographical, deal with the search for the self, loneliness, the transience of time and the difficulty of balancing on the verge of existential crisis. Maljartschuk has even tried herself at creating children’s prose, which significantly slowed down the pace of her creative work.


Initially published in 2016, Forgottenness received appreciation from critics and readers, and won the prestigious BBC Book of the Year award in Ukraine. Sad as it is, the novel became the author’s last prose book so far. In 2020 Tanja Maljartschuk delighted her readers with a poetry collection. Books by Tanja Maljartschuk have been translated into English, German, Polish, and other languages. However, Ukrainian readers are impatiently waiting for more of the author’s prose, not believing that she will let her talent give into the spell of “forgottenness”…


Forgottenness is a novel that is saturated with an acute perception of the greatness of time. At the beginning the narrator asserts that neither God, nor love, nor human genius define this world. It is only time that is capable of this. The author compares time to a large blue whale that swallows human lives, leaving only emptiness and forgottenness. The emptiness and forgottenness frighten the narrator, causing panic attacks that make her unwilling to leave her home. To counteract her “endangered” state, the narrator dives into the past, reading old newspapers, trying to come to terms with the irreversibility of time. On one of the archived pages of a newspaper from 1931, she notices an announcement of the death of Viacheslav Lypynskyi, a man she knows nothing about.


“Forgottenness”: US and Ukrainian covers


The novel is set in two time periods. The first is the narrator’s present, the 2010s, and the second tells the story of Viacheslav Lypynskyi, a Polish aristocrat who stood with Ukraine, defending its independence from the Russian Empire. After World War I and the collapse of the Russian Empire, historian and sociologist Viacheslav Lypynskyi supported the creation of the Ukrainian state based on the doctrine of national conservatism he had formulated. However, rapid political changes in the country that eventually led to the victory of the Bolsheviks and the establishment of totalitarianism pushed Viacheslav Lypynskyi and his ideas into forgottenness. Exhausted by tuberculosis, died in political exile.


While describing the destiny of this complex extraordinary personality, the narrator considers the dilemma of making choices that everyone has to grapple with throughout their lives. She tries to taste time to find out if creative work or historical research can dilute the bitterness with which time takes away everything that is most precious to a person, as Viacheslav Lypynskyi did. At last the narrator ponders: “What do I exist for?” What did Viacheslav Lypynskyi live for? These questions are left without reply.


The fear of disappearing compelled the narrator to do her creative work. The same fear made Viacheslav Lypynskyi write letters, hold debates with political opponents in them, and create a comprehensive history of Ukraine. This is how they both tried to counteract time. The reverence of the greatness of time in Tanja Maljartschuk’s novel is equal to the fear of death. That’s where the author expands beyond the bounds of the historical context, writing not only about Lypynskyi’s destiny, but also about Ukraine’s past when Ukrainians could only survive by submitting to circumstances, and their descendants had to pay for it by suffering in captivity.


And what about love? Can we do without love, without the feeling to which literature often ascribes immortality? In her novel Tanja Maljartschuk writes about love as well. While the blaze of love illuminated the darkness of the narrator’s transitory life, enduring the torment of love finally convinces Viacheslav Lypynskyi to distance himself from human passions in favor of statecraft.


Forgottenness by Tanja Maljartschuk is written in elegant prose, and addresses both a personal crisis and the scale of universal human problems. Indeed, who hasn’t tried to discover the meaning of life? Not everyone can find an answer that is satisfying with its sincerity. Neither Tanja Maljartschuk nor the narrator of the novel seem to have found it. The answer may be that we all need to find answers in our own personal experiences and actions, and that the results of our searches can’t be articulated even by the most masterful and thoughtfully chosen words.


Translation: Iryna Savyuk

Copy editing: Lesia Waschuk



The publication is a part of the “Chytomo Picks: New Books from Ukraine” project. The materials have been prepared with the assistance of the Ukrainian Book Institute at the expense of the state budget. The author’s opinion may not coincide with the official position of the Ukrainian Book Institute.