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ТЕОРІЯ ЛІТЕРАТУРИ - Соломія Павличко 2002


Іn the decade since Gorbachov’s perestroika, the new Ukrainian literature has enjoyed an atmosphere of freedom it hasn’t known for centuries. Many writers, however, experienced that freedom well before the country declared independence in 1991. Indeed, it was largely the inner freedom felt by writers and the intelligentsia that led to independence.

The evolving literary culture has no clear contours. A spate of aesthetic possibilities flooded the mainstream simultaneously and those writers not lost in the rapids suddenly found themselves afloat on what Jefferson called “the boisterous seas of liberty.” When they were finally cast ashore, they were like survivors of several shipwrecks who rush to greet each other only to discover that they barely share a language. These newly surfaced writers emerged from radically different circumstances. What could they have in common, these former dissidents and ex-Communists, the psychically scarred and the prodigies of privilege? Two things, anyway. All had stories to tell and, for the first time, all had the chance to compete for an audience.

The previous decade had been ugly. The Seventies were years of vicious repression and political pressure. Few risked open protest. At the same time, an artistic underground was gestating. Its ideas were grounded in Eastern philosophies stressing the autonomy of the individual, of an identity separate from society.

A philosophical and formal orientalism remains an essential characteristic of Oleh Lysheha, who in the mid-Seventies was involved in an attempt by young intellectuals from Lviv to publish the unofficial journal Skrynia (The Chest). Another group, whose best known members were Mykola Vorobyov and Vasyl Holoborodko, passed poems among a small circle in Kyiv. Then there were the so-called “metaphorists”: the most original writers here were Vasyl Herasymiuk, Ihor Rymaruk, and Ivan Malkovych. Finally, the youngest generation fixated on the shattering of taboos in the spheres of language, theme, and form. The most skillful riders of this wave — Yuri Andrukhovych, Viktor Neborak, and Oleksandr Irvanets — announced their existence openly, calling their group Bu-Ba-Bu (which stands for Burlesque- Bluster-Buffoonery). The movements tended to overshadow writers who belonged to no school and subscribed to no ideology. Many of these loners happened to be women; Natalka Bilotserkivets, Liudmyla Taran and Oksana Zabuzhko are the most prominent. But there were also men, including Oleksander Hrytsenko and Attyla Mohylnyi.

Moreover, publication of the forbidden classics of Ukrainian literature from the last centuries compelled virtually every writer to reconsider their place on the continuum of letters.

The eclecticism of the scene was reflected in the first, informal literary journals that appeared in the mid-Eighties. These were most often typewritten in many carbons, rendering some of them nearly illegible. And yet they were passed from hand to hand and widely discussed. Two places in Kyiv where it was possible to meet the writers themselves were the apartment of Mykola Riabchuk, a critic, poet, prose writer, editor, publisher, and above all the catalyst for a new generation; and in the office of Ihor Rymaruk, who remains the poetry editor for the “Dnipro” publishing house. Informal literary readings first took place in the rooms and studios of individual writers and artists, among a narrow circle of friends, spreading gradually and semi-officially to various public lecture halls and finally ending up at the Writers’ Union. The events electrified both writers and audiences, who understood that they were participating in a political and aesthetic metamorphosis. It later became clear that these two not necessarily concentric revolutions had occurred simultaneously; both had great significance and helped free the culture from all manner of conventions, restrictions, and recipes.

Young writers held evening readings of erotic poetry — that it was suddenly possible to write about sex intoxicated them. This had, after all, been a forbidden subject since the Twenties. Moreover, one could write about the military, the brutality and violence of the Soviet regime, and about Lenin-Stalin-Trotsky and other related figures. Finally, writers needed to formulate some version of their national history. Was Ukraine an occupied territory, or had communism been a stabilizing agent binding together a heterogeneous population? What was Ukraine really like? What relationship did it bear to the country refigured by folk stories, or by the intelligentsia in the diaspora? And what was “my” role as a Ukrainian writer to be in the new society? What is

“my” true literary heritage? The questions of inheritance and traditions inspired countless arguments.

In the “new” texts, words and sentences and syntax were broken (some of this had occurred in the Twenties, but as it had later been proscribed by the state, it felt entirely new). Raw obscenity and street idioms never before used in Ukrainian fiction or poetry, began appearing in print with some regularity. Western literatures had known similar euphorias over the breaking of taboos: first in the Thirties, and later in the Sixties. These days Henry Miller shocks no one; he merely annoys the feminists. However, the vulgate did open doors for new wave prose writers such as Bohdan Zholdak and Volodymyr Dibrova, as well as for a few poets, including Oleksander Irvanets.

Another crucial change in attitude had to do with where a writer sought approval and empowerment. Heretofore, a writer remained unrecognized unless his or her book was published in Russia or until he or she was mentioned by an important Moscow literary critic. Suddenly Ukrainian writers lost interest in this game. Although the West remained indifferent to their work, a benediction from the East seemed irrelevant. Ukrainian literature began curing itself of an old and deep sense of provincialism, marginality, and inadequacy. She (literature) was no longer interested in the refined and specialized languages of the worker, the professor, or the collective farm director. Models of intellectual and aesthetic orientation were shattering and writers began looking for approval from within.

Eclecticism still reigns: formalism, free verse, rap-influenced recitation all thrive side by side. The principal transformation in poetry, as well as in prose, had to do not with form but with diction. In the last years, urban sounds, anxieties, cynicism, and crude humor have won admission to the palace — no, make that the pub — of art.

Older critics tended to view these developments as little more than posturing and bravado. They simply couldn’t see beyond Rymaruk’s long hair or Pashkovskyi’s military boots, which really were imposing. (Alas, he no longer wears them.) The “hooligans” meanwhile mocked the language of politically engaged art at every turn while at the same time attending anti-Soviet demonstrations and gatherings outside Parliament, and supporting the students who held a hunger strike in October of 1990.

In 1991, Ukrainian independence, the most important event in the country’s history in this century, freed writers enormously. As long as they remained stateless, they were more or less stuck with endlessly shoring up the foundation on which a literature might be built. All earlier attempts over the last hundred years at creating “art for the sake of art” had failed. Now, at last, writers can move beyond their role as missionaries proselytizing on behalf of the Ukrainian language. Today, for the first time, they have a choice. Those who wish to may work in politics, education, or as propagandists, using their gifts for ideological purposes. Others may rally under beauty’s banner or, on the contrary, strive to shock with deliberate ugliness.

Neonationalists are not impressed by this liberation. They continue to claim that the new state, its spirituality, and its literature, do not accommodate them. They reject the influences of the West, declare religious belief the first sign of creative force, and aim at building “a true state” and a “real” national literature. It’s not hard to understand their concern: Ukraine has not turned into the land of their dreams and the Ukrainianaphones remain an oppressed minority in most eastern Ukrainian cities.

Independence has, however, had even less happy consequences: it has created a crisis in publishing which is felt by every writer in the country. Ukraine does not have a single paper mill within its borders. Until 1992, the country had no independent publishers. The last books of Zholdak, Vynnychuk, Dibrova, Rymaruk, Herasymiuk and others were published in 1991. Only a handful of books appeared in 1992, and 1993 was the least fruitful year in the entire century for the publication of literature.

Government publishing houses went bankrupt and subscriptions to literary journals dropped sharply. The few remaining magazines are grossly behind schedule. As a mle, new periodicals put out no more than two or three issues before going bust. Freedom opened the floodgates on Western writing, above all on work from America and chiefly in Russian translation, which has overwhelmed the Ukrainian book market. Contemporary Ukrainian literature is hardly published. The things that do appear do not deserve to be called books as they are printed on awful paper in broken type with ragged covers.

Yet one journal, Suchasnist (The Contemporary Scene), publishes new novels which are studied and debated by everyone who reads Ukrainian. Under other circumstances these works might become bestsellers, though at the moment they rarely appear as separate books. The literati are once again reduced to passing around typescripts.

The “new literature” is various, argumentative, and self-contradictory. The above mentioned Bu-Ba-Bu have survived a de cade and now keep to themselves, remaining aloof even from their admirers, who tend to be “unserious,” liberal, urban, cosmopolitan. For these readers, literary activity is a game in which the author plays hide and seek with the audience. The writers are formalists for whom the structural aspects of art dominate ideology and content.

Their antithesis are the “serious” artists, the neonationalists, the village stylists, as well as the professional pilgrims and mystics. The issue of “Ukrainianness” plays a key role in their theories, and they regularly refer to more than one generation of “fathers” and ancestors against whom they wish to be measured. In 1993 one such circle formed a group known as “The New Literature.” Their ideologue, Sfevhen Pashkovskyi, had, by age 32, published four novels. His prose is far more original and interesting than his group’s ideology, which smacks of pathos, pomposity, and partisanship. Pashkovskyi, like his antipode Andrukhovych, is also a formalist. He is a writer of remarkable prose rhythms. For a while he was considered a genuine innovator; however, he remains essentially a moralist and would probably subscribe to the sententia published in an issue of the journal Osnova·. “There are more important things in life than writing.”

Until recently all discussions about socialist realism and dissident literature were conducted under the shadows cast by the walls of entirely unliterary and very real prisons. The most interesting works of the decade preceding perestroika are various writers’ letters from prison and exile. Meanwhile, the more literary work of political dissidents, with minor exceptions, already feels dated.

Dissident writers were limited by their political programs. Those who abandoned polemics for fantasy and science fiction, new age philosophy, or esoteric poetry had an easier time creating the New, and emancipating themselves — and literature — from established canons: romanticism, populism, traditional verse forms or the conventions of the realistic novel.

It’s difficult for some to accept that the days of “official” dissidence are over. They long to fight, to oppose the ruling elite. And the elite provides ample ground for opposition. However, it pays little attention to writers, leaving them bereft of the external pressure to which they’d grown so accustomed.

At the same time, all must face a gruesome legacy·, the fate of Ukrainian writers from the past. They lie buried inside a grave a century deep. During the seventy-year long existence of the USSR hundreds of Ukrainian writers were either murdered or died in

prison. The first of these, Hryhory Chuprynka, was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921. The last, Vasyl Stus, died in 1985 in a Siberian labor camp.

Aside from the actual physical plants of the numerous “correctional facilities” which threatened an entire society, there was a larger prison without walls spread across the entire country. The state ran a monstrous house of repression, and writers were merely its most dangerous denizens. Even some of the best known, most servile, officially celebrated party loyalists lived under the constant surveillance of the KGB.

And while recent history is already treated as a bad dream, It continues to paralyze the psyches of writers, knotting their thoughts and their hands. Almost all are trying to explain and understand a haunted past which gives them no peace. Without coming to terms with this, it’s not possible to evaluate the current scene. That is why the past continues to impose itself on contemporary literature, which mainly describes the way things were rather than how they are.

Among the young, the past has given birth to feelings of guilt, inferiority, and fear. The newest literature wants first to condemn and then to forget it. In Yevhen Pashkovskyi’s essay, “Literature as Crime,” he blames all those who accepted Soviet reality, and especially those who contributed to the creation of it. But he fails to see the danger in fostering a literature of retribution.

Retribution is in fact the business of the hero of Yuri Andrukhovych’s novel The Moskoviada. His autobiographical hero is filled with hate for the empire and its capital, Moscow, although he is drawn there and spends most of his time in its vicinity. Hating it, he also hates himself, his weakness, his inner emptiness. Ukrainian prose has never had a hero this empty and alienated. But what is his view on the future? Does he intend to inhabit this loathing for his past and for himself forever? Or will analysis and confession liberate him from his complexes? I suspect the latter impulse will win; Ukrainian culture is growing increasingly critical not only of its traditionally hostile surroundings but also of itself.

Living inside the ruins of a prison produces one final, widespread mode of discourse: that of violence and cruelty. This began with stories about the army, which for a time appeared to be the central theme of a generation. The brutality of military life is consonant with the harshness of post-Soviet life in general. It is a life without love, saturated in reciprocal violence, where men rape women and women men, where prostitution, betrayal, and sexual cynicism are the norm in human relations.

The most interesting voices are those which are free of the “prison house complex,” which aren’t turned to the past, and don’t rehearse the old myths or worship in the ancient temples, but instead breathe in the present. These belong mainly to a few women. They are more universal, without the note of rage animating their male colleagues. Most still rely on the patriarchal tradition in which they “sing” about the joys of motherhood, their love for their men, or the “tragic fate of Ukraine and Ukrainian women,” producing various “laments.” This offers male critics an excuse to unfairly group all women writers on the periphery of the traditionally masculine culture.

It’s harder for them to deal with those who don’t fit this stereotype, as, for example, Oksana Zabuzhko. Hers is the surest female, and feminist, voice to sound in Ukrainian culture in a decade. Intellectual, smart, and logical in her prose, in her poetry she speaks as a woman of feeling, even passion. Zabuzhko is concerned with feelings, and not with the tortured sex obsessing the prose of the most brilliant male writers, who seem as yet unprepared for feelings. In their work, sex is primarily a necessary distraction, as well as an occasion for linguistic byplay. For her sharpness, sincerity, and intensity of poetic feeling, Oksana Zabuzhko may be compared to Sylvia Plath, whom she has, incidentally, translated into Ukrainian.

“\buth is over,” said Andrukhovych nostalgically on the tenth anniversary of Bu-Ba-Bu. The new Ukrainian literature enjoyed a turbulent and ultimately lucky adolescence. What necessity it discovers as time moves on remains anyone’s guess.

Translated by Askold Melnyczuk


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