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from the August 2014 issue

Metamorphoses of Reality: An Introduction to New Ukrainian Writing

Whenever I get into a conversation regarding Ukraine’s place on the global map, I am always reminded of a cartoon I once saw in an American history textbook. In it, a confused-looking student is sitting in front of a map of the countries of the former Soviet Union, scratching his head and saying: “How in the world am I supposed to learn fifteen more of these?” Ukraine is one of those Eastern European countries which in the West are still commonly labeled as Russia.

The tide of global interest in Ukraine and its art follows a regular rhythm. Every decade or so, the Ukrainian issue is brought to the world’s attention: and every time it isn’t good news. And every time, these traumatic political events become the hot topic for international media agencies. The events of the fall of 2004, known as the peaceful Orange Revolution, have not left much of a mark on global culture and mass consciousness for Ukraine, except maybe in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster War of the Worlds, where the first reports about aliens come from Ukraine. A decade later, meanwhile, the protests of the fall and winter of 2013–14 will surely leave a deep mark, and not only in the minds of Ukrainians.

Due to the instant reaction on social media, these events became the first conflicts in Ukraine to be known on a truly global level. The online revolution. The global information war for viewers’ sympathies. The whole world experienced this regional conflict like a thrilling TV show. The media turned the reality of the situation itself into a virtual cloud, with virtual heroes, virtual clashes, and virtual forces of evil. The victims, however, were far from virtual.

As I write these lines military actions are taking place in the East of Ukraine against terrorists and hired guns mostly sent from Russia. The daily listing of killed troops has become part of everyday life, of the new reality of the country. Many people feel that this reality is going to last for a long time. A farewell to the Soviet past will not be a short one. The postcolonial fight against the ambitions of the empire will go on for years. And all of it will serve to forge the national identity and define everyday life.

An invitation from Words without Borders to present a selection of contemporary Ukrainian prose triggered a number of dangerous temptations in me. One of them was to present works created in the whirlpool of revolutionary events. It seems to me, however, that this purpose is served more effectively by the traveling exhibitions of art inspired by the events on Kyiv’s Maydan and presented all over the world. Their visual language currently conveys more than stories created as a direct reaction to these revolutionary events. On the other hand, I was tempted to present works by writers whose books have already been published abroad, including in English translation in the United States. However, there was also a third way.

Resisting the temptation to introduce stories born out of protest, I decided to bring together work that would remain interesting and effective regardless of the political situation in the country and the media craze. My aim was to present the work of writers of approximately the same generation from different parts of the country. They might well be the ones whose writing will define what Ukrainian literature will look like in the decades ahead, and their best work might well be yet unwritten.

The short stories you read here are part of broader narrative clusters—fragments of conceptual collections. They work as stand-alone pieces, but when viewed as parts of these collections, they acquire new shades of meaning. This selection serves to emphasize several characteristic features of contemporary Ukrainian literature. Among the most important of these is its connection with the baroque tradition, which has remained of utmost importance in Ukrainian culture for centuries. In our three stories, this connection is especially evident in the baroque concept of the memento mori, which, in turn, is seen in a new light through the idea of metamorphosis—a person’s surreal transformation, or transition into a new body.

A characteristic feature of Ukrainian writing in the past decade has been its depiction and exploration of reality not directly through the realistic narrative, but rather through the surreal and fantastical, the false mirrors of reality. Possibly, it is only such mirrors that are capable of adequately displaying the fragmented reality inhabited by Ukrainian authors and readers. Over the past twenty years that reality has swung from Soviet ruin to wild capitalism, to oligarchy and VIP life in a glamorous setting (still Soviet in its essence). Values have eroded and ideals have been reformed, all of it creating cracks in people’s minds, as well as in reality itself.

One of the most compelling, comic, and absurd books of recent years is thirty-one-year-old Sashko Ushkalov’s collection of stories Tough Stuff (Zhest’) published in 2013. His everyday narrative keeps slipping into the realm of the absurd. Reality is turned upside down by the author’s ironic voice and peculiar humor, both deeply inlaid with deeply unsettling intonations. Ushkalov, who started his career as a poet and a playwright, is quickly becoming one of Ukraine’s most notable short story writers.

Tanya Malyarchuk, also born in 1983, is one of Ukraine’s best-known writers, recognizable by her inimitable writing style. She treads a thin line between the real and the surreal, where dreams and reality merge and familiar things suddenly acquire unfamiliar shapes. Her 2009 conceptual collection of stories The Bestiary (Zviroslov) is inspired by the fantastical bestiaries of times past. In Malyarchuk’s The Bestiary, however, from which her short story “Rats” is taken, people are depicted as animals, and human society takes on shades of the animal world. The small, “nonheroic,” unnoteworthy characters who people The Bestiary, have lives defined by metamorphoses and the fluidity of their physical forms.

Chronos, the 2011 novel in short stories by thirty-six-year-old Taras Antypovych, describes life after 2040, when a device known as a “chronomate” is invented. The chronomate can suck biological time out of one living organism and transfer it into any other. Chronos does not have a single protagonist. Every story further expands the limits of the invented world, exploring the extent of the harm caused by the chronomate’s emergence; the stealing of other people’s time, misuse of state funds, government corruption, the development of chrono-drugs, the deterioration of religious institutions, among the many. Though the plot seems fantastic, it has a strong connection throughout with everyday life in today’s Ukraine.

It is through the fantastic that the reader arrives at the everyday. It is through the journey across strange reality, torn by contradictions and oppositions, that mutual understanding becomes possible.

Discovering one’s identity is impossible without metamorphoses (of body? of mind?).

The path toward discovering oneself (on a global map? inside one’s country?) lies through finding agreement with oneself.

Oneself—as well, as others.

© Метаморфози реальності. Oleksandr Mykhed. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Iryna Shuvalova. All rights reserved.

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