Ukrainian Literature Part 2

Having just read twenty Ukrainian novels in a row does not really entitle me to make any major judgements about the country or its literature. Nevertheless I shall make a few remarks on my reading.

Ukraine has been in the unfortunate position of having been occupied, in whole or part, by numerous nationalities, particularly the Poles, the Germans (in World War II) and, of course, the Russians. However the Tatars, the Turks, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians and the Romanians have all been involved. None of them have been benign occupiers but there seems little doubt that the Russians have been (and still are ) particularly horrible. In one book, a character looks towards the East and says danger always comes from the East even though the area is occupied by the Poles to the West and the Nazis are about to invade, also from the West. A character in another book says Oh, what bad stuff those Russkies have caused among the people, God forbid! Quite a few of the books I read dealt with various wars and occupations, perhaps not surprisingly.

While some of the books were deadly (literately) serious, quite a few used humour to good purpose, from the gentle mocking of Gaponenko’s Who is Martha to the out-and-out satire of Lyubka’s Carbide. East European are famous for their humour in books, perhaps because humour is one way of dealing with an oppressive society and the Ukrainians are no exception,even if the humour is often dark.

As I mentioned in a review, I had not heard of the Hutsuls before reading these books. However three of the best novels were set among them : Тіні забутих предків (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), Солодка Даруся (Sweet Darusya) and НепрОсті (The Unsimple ). Maybe the mountain air has something to do with it. Indeed if you were to read only four of the twenty books I read in the past few weeks, it is these three that I would recommend plus one other, mentioned below.

One thing that surprised me when I started looking at Ukrainian literature for this project last year was how many Ukrainian novels had been translated into English and also, how many I had in my library. I could have read several more without purchasing any additional ones. If you are really interested in the subject. Last year I produced Modern Ukrainian fiction in English, which I mentioned at the beginning of this project, and I seemed to have been adding to it almost every day so if you looked at it earlier, you will find more now. Publishers have realised that Ukrainian literature sells so there will be more coming out in the next year or two and I will certainly be reviewing some of them. The problem, however, is that the relatively few quality Ukrainian translators are in high demand. However, my list should have plenty to keep you going.

In terms of dealing with Ukrainianness (yes, it is a word; at least it was used in one book), the last book I read – Eugenia Kononenko‘s Російський сюжет (A Russian Story) dealt with it best. One of the key issues was language. Ukraine, when part of the Soviet Union was dominated by Russian, at least in the urban areas . People spoke Russian, studied in Russian and dealt with the system in Russian. Російський сюжет (A Russian Story) deals with the issue of how people rediscovered Ukrainian and spoke it, if often badly. Since Putin’s illegal war, obviously there has been a greater emphasis on speaking Ukrainian rather than Russian. However, for me anyway, it is interesting to see how a country has essentially switched languages. A few of the books I read were written in Russian rather than Ukrainian (and one in German) but I expect we will see more in Ukrainian.

The other issue raised in Російський сюжет (A Russian Story) but also elsewhere was the literature. Obviously Russian literature is far better known outside Ukraine (and, in some cases, in Ukraine) than Ukrainian literature. Few Westerners, I imagine, had read much Ukrainian literature befoe Putin’s illegal war but that is changing. Several of the books mentioned Ukrainian works that Ukrainians read, some from the nineteenth century. I expect more and more contemporary Ukrainian works will become known and will be translated into Western languages, including English. I am aware of a few in the works, with the constraint being the lack of sufficient competent Ukrainian translators.

Harking back to the Російський сюжет (A Russian Story) – it had a lot to say on these issues – one character mentions that Ukrainian studies are well behind Irish studies in US universities and overshadowed by Russian studies. A related issue, which I quoted in my review is how the literatures of lesser-known countries are swamped by the literatures of better-known ones with one character saying Small nations also have figures like Hemingway. But the world is unfamiliar with them. This is not because there are no translators or literary agents to make Eastern European Hemingways visible to the world. Rather it is because the American Hemingway is enough for the entire world.

I have no doubt Ukrainian literature will become better known in the West. I expect that publishers will produce more Ukrainian worksin Western languages, including English, which we can only welcome. And I have no doubt that they can do better than Hemingway.

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