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“To see Paris” by Taisia Nakonechna: life on the emigrant islands26.11.2022
The authors who wrote about Paris over the last two centuries can be divided into two large groups: those who want to die in Paris, and those who don’t plan to die there at all. There are few cities so charismatic that a long literary tradition, which goes far beyond the national borders, has formed around them. Despite the title, the prose collection “Побачити Париж” (“To see Paris”) by Taisia Nakonechna, is not so much about Paris as about the “islands of emigration” in general, the desired, or more often forced rooting in foreign territory. Paris here is a symbol of foreignness; it’s not your city, anthemed not by your tradition, the brightest simulacrum available today. After all, even the destruction of myths about Paris soon turns into a myth, just remember “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller.
Yes, it’s exactly about rooting, a process, not a permanent result, a path without an end point. Probably, the first generation of emigrants has no chance to fully integrate into someone else’s history, because these people are doomed to return to the limbo of uncertainty or complicated identity, which requires constant rethinking and redefinition. With the emigrants of the first wave from Nakonechna’s stories, it’s often uncomfortable to conduct a dialogue neither for the locals, who feel fully and organically in their own space, nor for the Ukrainians who remained “on mainland Ukraine”. And meanwhile the emigrant circle itself often turns out to be not so much a group of therapeutic support as a competitive environment where you have to fight with your own kind.
Going abroad, the heroes get the opportunity to change their lives, to literally restart them. Nothing keeps Nelya in her native Kolomyia: her husband, who was at home, died, she has no friends left, she doesn’t even know her neighbors. For Masha from Ivano-Frankivsk, Italy is not so much a chance to start over and never look back, as an opportunity to live another life without risking the main one. In Bergamo, she becomes Masha instead of Marichka, and instead of a husband, she has il fidanzato, that is, a local boyfriend. Surrounding themselves with new people, the heroes are actually looking for opportunities to gain a foothold, integrate, take a few safe steps, lean on someone, but not tightly, so that it doesn’t hurt later.
It is symbolic that Masha’s husband sends her vegetables and fruits from Ukraine, a living reminder of the land, something born of her country. And when the marriage does fall apart, Masha gets involved with the mafia, an organization that is also absolutely territorial, focused on dividing the quarters into its own and foreign ones. I am certain: fate punishes Masha not so much for betrayal, as for the fact that she shared a vegetable of her native land with a stranger, without even telling him about it.
Our identity is a fluid set of diverse elements that whimsically combine into a self. The same can be said about the identities of cities: they seem to be something permanent, stable, almost indestructible, a layering of already existing stories of the people who once inhabited these places. However, in reality, identity is not a clearly defined body, but rather a rhizome, an endless unfolding of underground mycelium, on which the city unsteadily stands. Studying this rhizome is as interesting as people’s selves.
With no doubts “To see Paris” is urban fiction. The author writes about cities not as silent and comfortable scenery, but as living beings, big beasts that sleep, breathe and sometimes interact with people. It is difficult for them to recover after the summer heat and they curl up in a ball in winter. They talk to their residents as equals, they demand attention and give a helping hand.
Conversations are much more difficult for people. Thus, Eve from the story “Ciao, little daughter” has been living with her mother in different countries for several decades. Their communication on the phone is rather an exchange of ready-made and memorized lines, where the mother pushes and tries to arrange the life of her only child, despite all the wishes of the latter. Endless playing out of the same chess pattern, where the result is already known. What happened in this typical family?
Nothing special: the mother gave birth to Eve at 19, so she was forced to transfer to distance learning and start earning immediately. And later she went to work abroad in Italy: “Everything for the sake of Eve”, is repeated as a refrain in the family. Imposed care, which the other does not ask for, becomes the cause of quarrels and the destruction of relationships in several stories. So Nelya dares to advise Masha to be more open with men, and Masha reacts with pain and anger. Eve’s mother habitually calls her daughter with advice and condemnation, even though the girl has long since ceased to depend on her, – and receives only coldness in response. The conclusions are disappointing: blood and friendship ties are not really strong ropes, but thin threads that tear due to distance and the inability to find a common language.
Material, physical artifacts in the stories become substitutes or symbols of relationships: the refrigerator and the washing machine from the story about Masha and Nelya symbolize betrayal: Masha not only kicks out Nelya, who dared to throw a few judgemental remarks, but also refuses to return the equipment that Nelya bought herself. But justice will prevail, and Masha will get what she deserves right on the eve of Christmas, which is indeed a Hollywood-like familiar move. For Eve, maternal warmth is associated with vivid physical images, such as the taste of mozzarella and the smell of basil: it was caprese salad that Eve ate in Italy, where she came to visit her mother. Can you read the symbolism? Caprese literally looks like the Italian flag. Italy is a new home for her mother, and for Eve it’s a source of energy, a way to satisfy basic needs, a curiosity, but nothing more.
Border space, roads in particular, is often a place of meeting, acquaintance and sincere confessions in this book. Thus, Lina, who is forced to live in two countries, likes to go to Belgium by minibus, which she calls shuttle. Indeed, the difference between countries sometimes becomes huge. The heroine is most comfortable in her shuttle: she doesn’t have to communicate with random travelers, but listen to their stories.
If the storyteller is a classic scriptwriter, then the minibus is obviously Charon’s archetypal boat. Every move across the border is, in fact, the crossing of a symbolic line, when your previous identity – candidate of sciences, history teacher, puppet theater actor – loses its weight, disappears. Now you work as a caregiver, go to your boyfriend, renovate the house, and all of your experience suddenly appears otherworldly, as if lost. In one of the scenes, Lina thinks that on the road she always has time to sleep and read as much as she wants, and people never have time for this in ordinary life. How is this not a symbol of the transition and change of status from an active subject to a passive observer? The story ends with a question from one of the passengers: why do some people live so badly in Ukraine? And I want to answer: “Because we are at the stage of transition”.
On the other side of this transition, a “man from Europe” is often waiting for the heroine: a boyfriend, a fiancé or simply an employer.
Men remain a vague background, a living cultural contrast against which the characters can reveal themselves. Thus, the German Niels, whom Valentina met on the Internet, becomes a reason for a woman to take selfies and post about a wonderful dinner, colorful nature and her lover. The impossibility of communication or its limitation, sometimes caused by an objective factor, like language in Valentina’s case, destroys any interaction, even the most sincere one. The heroines of these texts exist to exchange signals with the world, to record and reproduce them, so when offline communication dies down, they go online and begin to imitate life there. However, there is one story where the man is active and effective, it’s the story “One’s own”. Perhaps it’s the most tragic story in the collection, because in the text it turns out that neither language, nor common experience, nor the apparent understanding that spontaneously arises between two people in a foreign country, does not guarantee that you are in front of a real human.
The invariable conclusions of most stories sound simple: home is where you and your family feel good; remember that there is no “later”, life happens right now; before sacrificing yourself for someone, find out if they need it at all. A simple life philosophy of people from airplanes, minibuses, buses, from everything that moves and takes them to another life.
Translated by Maria Bragan
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