A Journey Through the Literature of Ukraine: From a pet penguin to a slice of cherry pie
Eastern European literature is close to my heart and a home for most of my favourite books. Singing to the song of “reading enriches the mind and expands the imagination”, I always felt it did so incredibly well and beyond words when it came to Eastern European literature. Perhaps it has something to do with me being Polish, or perhaps there are literary gems that truly take you on a journey to places you hadn’t imagined existed.
The tragic events of the past month made me reflect about the literature of Ukraine, trying perhaps to find an understanding of the events of today, and also of how this country is responding. I am a mental health scientist (and well, you already know one of my passions!), and in this blog, I would like to invite you on a journey through the literature of Ukraine.
I would like to start with Ihor Pavlyuk (born 1 January 1967 in Uzhova, Ukrainian SSR), a Ukrainian writer and poet, and a winner of several international awards including the English PEN award, whose books were translated into several languages. His selected poems “A flight over the Black Sea” was published in English in 2014 and contains beautiful poems that awaken your imagination and transport you in the idyllic landscapes of the North-West of Ukraine. In the poem “Bread of the Childhood”, the author invites all our senses on a trip to his childhood home, Polissya, where you can smell the spring and taste the freshly baked cherry pie. Today, some of this territory, close to the border with Belarus and Russia, is held by the Russian army.
The skilful wordplay used by Ihor Pavlyuk reminds me of the works by Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892 — November 19, 1942), a brilliant Polish writer born in Drohobych (current Ukraine). Though they use different techniques — synesthesia, the mixing of the senses to describe an object, in Pavlyuk’s case, and personifications of inanimate objects, in Schulz’s case — both authors effortlessly bring images of their childhoods to life.
Reading Pavlyuk’s poems, you can really “fly over the Black Sea” and taste that cherry pie, except that when the current reality hits, you find yourself hearing the sounds of the war, the smell of explosions, and the images of the ruins around you.
If you, like me, adore the literature of grotesque, you might like the novel “Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov (born 23 April 1961 in Leningrad, USSR) which talks about the bleak reality of post-soviet life in Kyiv shown from a satirical perspective. Surrealistic events that take place in the novel, where the main protagonist, who lives with a pet penguin, embarks on a new job (writing catchy obituaries for high profile people in case they die), give a humorous tone to the dreary and chaotic life depicted in the novel. This type of bizarre humour, the irony of dark and comical being intertwined and inseparable, are amongst my most enjoyed forms of writing.
One of my favourite books from the literature of grotesque is “Master and Margarita” by Mihail Bulgakov (15 May 1891–10 March 1940), a writer born in Kyiv who wrote and lived in Russia. The book was written during the Soviet Union period and it is a masterpiece in its cynical portrayal of the reality at the time, written in the most amusing form where unusual and supernatural are the norm, and the dark reality is set in surrealism.
If you are interested in feminism you might like Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabushko (born 19 September 1960 in Lutsk, Ukraine), a prominent novelist, essayist, and poet whose works were translated into several languages. Zabushko’s literary interests also include the modern history of Ukraine and issues of national identity, which you can discover more in the award-winning novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. The devastating effects of the Ukrainian-Russian War and the trauma that follows it is portrayed in one of Zubushko’s stories “No Entry to the Performance Hall after the Third Bell” which is part of the book “Your Ad Could Go Here”. There, the main protagonist, who never fought at the frontline, lives through the pain of the war by dating a soldier who was left an invalid following the 2014 Ukrainian-Russian War. The physical and psychological trauma of the war reaches far further than imagined; it’s the trauma of the collective, the trauma of generations to come.
For our last stop, I would like to travel back to the 19th century to meet Nikolai Gogol (1 April 1809–4 March 1852), born in the Ukrainian Cossack town of Sorochyntsi, in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire, and a brilliant writer of the Realism — an artistic movement that embraced the representation of everyday life. He wrote in Russian. As we read in this recent Guardian article by Keith Gessen, one of the famous Soviet songs says that “The motherland begins with the pictures in the first book your mother reads you”. This homely feel of Ukraine shines through in Gogol’s “Village Evenings near Dikanka and Mirgorod”, where he portrays the Ukrainian folklore, the home of his childhood and youth — now on the main route of Russian army movement to Kyiv, and home to missile airstrikes. Gogol was also one of the first authors to introduce grotesque and surrealism in his style, which is seen in his works such as “The Overcoat” or “The Nose”.
As we approach the end of this blog, I hope that its content will invite people to get to know the Ukrainian culture, and that you will enjoy the beautiful literature it has produced.
Inspire the Mind continues to be deeply saddened by and concerned about the terrible events in Ukraine and our thoughts and prayers are with the people affected. It is heartwarming to see the kindness and solidarity shown in these frightening times with campaigns such as the JustGiving page from Dennis Ougrin, a psychiatrist who has been delivering medical supplies to those in desperate need. He was interviewed by InSPIre the Mind here.
Header Image Source: Marie G. on Unsplash