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ТЕОРІЯ ЛІТЕРАТУРИ - Соломія Павличко 2002

INTRODUCTION (Two lands, new visions: Stories from Canada and Ukraine) - ІНШІ ЕСЕ ТА ДОСЛІДЖЕННЯ

The world of literature, unlike a literary textbook, is always a world of creative chaos, an absence of logic. Ukrainian literature is no exception. The biggest paradox is unfolding today: contemporary literature, that which is being written after 1991, the year independence was obtained, has lost its optimistic and romantic tone. Nobody yearned for independence as much as writers; however, literature today has lost its bearings. The writers of the older generation are stressed out, and some have even stopped producing; young writers wallow in depression and pessimism: they view the world through the eyes of the grotesque and satire. Writers have largely lost interest in social issues, which were their age-old concern, and instead delve into self-reflection, cue in narcissistically on their bodies, and explore their sexuality — frightening conservative nationalists who are still convinced that Ukrainians had their origins in Immaculate Conception.

After independence, the writer’s role in Ukrainian society altered radically. The Ukrainian writer was born over a thousand years ago as a chronicler, noting the events of Kyivan Rus. Following the Byzantine style, the writer had little leeway. The important thing was accuracy, a minimum of individuality, and strict adherence to canons. In time things changed. Five hundred years passed, and monks had taken to writing philosophical tracts and comedies, and hetmans (Cossack rulers such as Ivan Mazepa) wrote poetry.

Two hundred years ago the Ukrainian writer came into a new role: that of educator, preacher, builder, prophet, servant of an idea, fighter for the freedom of Ukraine, a country which at that time had been divided between two mighty empirest — he Russian and the Austro-Hungarian. And although this new, beginning coincided with Romanticism and was heavily influenced by it, there was nothing idyllic about the predicament of Ukrainian literature in this period. This was not the struggle for freedom a la Byron, who in a theatrical gesture ordered a helmet of an ancient

Greek warrior en route to liberating Greece. In Ukraine there were enormous losses and suffering: prison and censorship under Russian rule, which entailed the banning of the language itself, not only individual works. Then came the Soviet period with its mass executions, prison camps, and the gulag. The ten-year forced conscription, in the nineteenth century, of Taras Shevchenko into the tsarist army (which he served in the deserts of Central Asia) because of derogatory lines about the empress, and the death in Soviet camps some fifteen years ago of another poet, Vasyl Stus, defined the scale of values of Ukrainian literature in the last two centuries.

Now everything has changed. Writers have lost their role as political and spiritual leaders. This change has greatly influenced individual styles and genres, the short story in particular.

The contemporary Ukrainian short story does not resemble classic national instances of the genre, which is, by the way, the leading genre of fiction, in the sense of masterpieces created by predecessors. One can affirm without hesitation that the contemporary short story is undergoing a time of experiment that never occurred before. The main tendency of these experiments lies in the furious destruction of the old form, the old content, the old language, the sense of writing, and sometimes even the sense of the author’s own “I.”

The next peculiarity of the new Ukrainian short story (and of fiction as a whole) is a pessimistic minor key, an interest in the dark side of consciousness, the absurd, macabre, and “dirty” sides of life. For several years now, the most optimistic era in Ukrainian history has been spawning terrible fantasmagorical plots, a world without dawn or hope. In the official Ukrainian literature — called socialist realism— of recent Soviet times, there was so much saccharine falsity and mendacious optimism that the accentuation of the “terrible” truth is a sign that literature is convalescing. Our time in Ukrainian literature can be called a return to the truth. It is tied to a need to grasp previous experience of Ukrainian life — Chornobyl, Afghanistan, Soviet totalitarianism.

Political independence has brought into the culture the phenomenon of rereading and rethinking the past in a broad sense. Consciously or subconsciously writers have been trying to grasp both the preceding era of the Soviet regime and the legacy of the two empires to which Ukraine belonged until 1918 — the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian, and the Cossack state that flowered in the seventeenth century and declined in the eighteenth, and finally the even-earlier experience of the principalities of Kyivan Rus, Galicia, and Volhynia. The re-examination of history and its mythologemes is taking place together with a redefinition of the principles of Ukrainian “civilization”: literature deconstructs its age-old complexes and fears, at the same time modernizing and liberalizing the general cultural discourse.

Another thing that is taking place today and touches all fiction writers is a rethinking of the nature of the short story itself. In the canons of Soviet literature narrativity was a political requisite along with ideological loyalty and a variety of taboos: against sexuality, against censorable language, against the language of the streets. It seems that this very “fortress” of the past — narrative — has for contemporary Ukrainian fiction writers become especially intolerable. Throughout the nineties a war against narrative has been waged. Among writers it has become fashionable to talk about writing fragments of prose that exist beyond the framework of genre. It seems that the social aggressivity that is present in contemporary Ukrainian society is also directed against the short story, which is single-mindedly destroyed, quartered, and dissected into separate phrases and sounds, depriving it of any of the logical ties that are characteristic of real life. For this reason, perhaps, the traditional short story with a plot and real life is again being received in the late nineties as a gust of fresh air.

Besides the general tendency to the breakdown of narrative, the Ukrainian short story of recent years demonstrates a number of specific features: conceptual, regional, and gender-related. The latter are perhaps the most interesting. Only in the last ten or twenty years has Ukrainian literature seen the return, after a long period of silence or some puzzling boycott of socialist realism, of women. They have brought their point of view on women’s lives, an as-yet unknown confessionalism, an openness in conveying feeling, feminist aggression, and a sarcastic rejection of patriarchal Ukrainian life with its stereotypes and set roles and norms. The women’s prose, and especially of the authors included in this book — Oksana Zabuzhko, 'tevhenia Kononenko, Svitlana Kasianova, and Roksana Kharchuk — can probably be compassed by the one notion of “diversion.” This diversion is particularly central, for it touches not the surface of life, but undermines the notions of traditional masculinity and femininity ostensibly fixed forever by the national culture.

The feminist tradition, which began to develop in the fin de siecle, was silenced in the Soviet period. Today women for the first time in many years are speaking in their own voice. Their stories have little in common with the image of the idyllic happy

peasant-mother in an embroidered blouse; rather they are brutally honest and explore hitherto forbidden themes. In the eighties Ukrainian fiction was subdivided thematically into village and city prose. Village prose, or more precisely prose about the village, was an encoded version of resistance to a hostile regime. For only in the village was Ukrainianness able to survive, evading the Russification that was integral to every aspect of urban existence. It was village prose with its naturalism, psychologism, and political allusions, hidden behind a style of authorial non-comment, that commented, criticized, and spoke the truth about Soviet life.

From village prose evolved the naturalistic tendency of the present day, not devoid of a certain moralistic quest. Writers like Vasyl Portiak or Oles Ulianenko no longer turn their gaze to the village or even the city, but to marginal types who do not belong to either village or city— the homeless, the social “bottom,” to use a term from Emile Zola’s time. In a society that is experiencing a global economic crisis, mass unemployment, and the marginalization of entire social strata, a huge number of such people have emerged. The writers of this tendency have tried to find in the naturalistic mire some sense of the present and a cleansing of it, and behind anti-intellectualism and simplicity hides an explosive force of truth on an almost-mythological level. Portiak and Ulianenko represent the only school that has some' continuity with the literature of pre-independence times. They are writers of eastern Ukraine and Kyiv.

The western, Galician, writing phenomenon is entirely differ* ent. This is not surprising in view of the historical legacy. At a time when Russia ruled, writers from Ukraine were denied the right to publish in the Ukrainian language. Their colleagues in the more liberal Austro-Hungarian empire issued newspapers and journals, held professorships, and wrote doctoral dissertations. At the end of the last century, western Ukraine also had a bohemian, artistic milieu in tune with the cosmopolitan currents of the modern. This was inconceivable in Russian-ruled eastern Ukraine. Moreover, writers there lived in the shadow of Russian literary influence, whereas the writers from the western region were influenced by Austrian, Polish, and other Central European influences.

At the centre of contemporary Galician writing is the intellectual, the artist, the tragic actor. The carnivalesque style of his life is reflected in burlesque, lucid prose. This prose is based on the multilingual literary tradition of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Galicia was a part. The intellectual freedom of the eighties, reinforced by the political freedom of the nineties, resurrected

the vibrant personalities of the region: Bruno Schulz from Drohobych, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch from Lviv, and Joseph Roth, born in Brody near Lviv. And even though not one of them wrote in Ukrainian (the former wrote in Polish and the latter two in German), their presence and that of such giants of Austrian literature as Kafka and Musil is palpable and substantial in the contemporary Galician phenomenon. Galician writers are also heavily influenced by Latin American fiction of the second half of the twentieth century, especially Borges, and the deconstruction of Derrida, and the postmodern theorizing of Lyotard. Once again, as before 1918, authors and their heroes travel to Vienna, Prague, or Cracow, with an obligatory return to Lviv or Stanyslaviv, as they all prefer to call present-day Ivano-Frankivsk.

Thus Ivano-Frankivsk/Stanyslaviv has reappeared recently on the map of Ukrainian literature. Possibly the most interesting and promising contemporary writers, represented here by Yuri Izdryk and Taras Prokhasko (in fact the group includes significantly more names), have emerged in this city. These authors do not record life, but model it, conceptualizing and ruining narrative at the same time as they ruin other fundamentals and truths. For them, nonetheless, the problems of the genre with which they are experimenting and of their own identity and their place in Central European culture are still unresolved. They have chosen a Central European identity. All that remains is for them to win recognition from this culture, and this is gradually happening, especially through translations of these authors into Polish or German.

As always, there are figures who stand apart and do not belong to any groups or trends. The most sarcastic humour, the most brilliant narrative, and an inexhaustible quantity of plots are being produced in the nineties by Bohdan Zholdak from Kyiv and Yuri Vynnychuk from Lviv. Both began writing in the seventies, both managed to survive the period of writing for the drawer and to come out, it seems, completely undamaged. This is a wonder in itself, for non-publication or its threat broke many writers. Zholdak and Vynnychuk were among the first of those who broke norms and canons themselves, touched on forbidden themes, and introduced a new language.

Language merits a separate comment. It has changed radically in the last decade, that is, the language of literature has come closer to the language of life than ever before. This means that it has integrated dialects, slangs, “surzhyks”: the Russian-Ukrainian creole in the east, which is a sign of political and social processes and cataclysms, and the entirely different, “noble” Galician dialect, which does not have the aggressivity of a surzhyk, in the west, with its numerous and now entirely organic Polish and German elements. The expansion of the latter barbarisms is pleasant and unthreatening, while the Russian-Ukrainian creole of eastern Ukraine has the destructive power of its bearers. Surzhyk is no longer just a language, but a state of tangled, dark consciousness that interests writers of a naturalistic-realistic orientation in the first place. No wonder that stream of consciousness (of a Faulknerian sooner than a Joycean order) is one of the most widespread fictional devices today.

“As never before” — these are the words used most frequently to characterize contemporary Ukraine as well as its literature. Indeed, Ukrainian life is, as never before, dramatic, dynamic, multifaceted, and creatively and intellectually stimulating. The atmosphere of liberty and constant change that has lasted for years now is inebriating as never before. Ukrainian writers, as never before, have something to talk about. The stories they tell are, as never before, interesting and captivating, terrible and funny I hope that they will be interesting for the English-language reader as well, as a new piece in the mosaic of contemporary literature.

На нашому каналі стартував марафон підготовки до ЗНО з української літератури. В рамках якого ми кожного дня будем викладати відео з новим твором. Підписуйтесь на наш канал та приєднуйтесь до марафону.