As a writer of science fiction in the Ukrainian language, Taras Antypovych is a relatively rare phenomenon. In a country where the vast majority of readers can read in Russian, and where the market in genre fiction is overwhelmingly dominated by imports from Russia, it is difficult for unknown Ukrainian-language writers to gain a foothold in this field. For Ukrainian writers who are able, the commercial temptations of the wider Russian-language market, covering most of the post-Soviet world, often prove difficult to resist, and many choose to write in Russian. Indeed, some of the most successful sci-fi and fantasy voices in the Russian-language literary sphere today come from Ukraine.
This is not to say that Ukrainian literature more widely is in crisis. The country’s literary scene is young and vibrant, and its writers often enjoy the kind of avid, devoted following that their counterparts in Western Europe can only dream of; one only needs to look at the huge audiences that gather at the poetry readings of Ukraine’s biggest contemporary literature star, Serhii Zhadan, for confirmation of this. Yet, in commercial terms, the Ukrainian-language publishing industry struggles to compete with its larger neighbor. While around eighty percent of books in Ukrainian bookshops are in Russian, Ukrainian-language books exist in small print runs, and the writers largely depend on foreign grants, stipends, and, crucially, translations for their modest incomes.
As odd as it may sound, Ukrainian literary output is too heavily oriented toward highbrow, often experimental, fiction and poetry. It lacks the mass appeal enjoyed by big name sci-fi or crime writers, the sort of big earners who might prop up Ukrainian-language publishing. It is for this reason that a writer like Taras Antypovych, whose novel Chronos is a world-class example of intelligent but accessible sci-fi writing, is such an important figure. It is only books like this that can redress the publishing industry balance in favor of literature in Ukrainian.
The premise for Chronos is the discovery of a way to put off death. A new invention allows time to be captured, measured, and traded, and the novel follows a wide range of characters as they adapt (or fail to do so, as is the case with the graveyard employees who feature in the excerpt I translated for Words Without Borders) to the new order. Behind the fantastical, futuristic premise is a sharply observed satire of contemporary Ukraine’s corruption-ridden society.
There is a tragic irony in translating this text now, given the current crisis in Ukraine. Since the Yanukovych government’s sniper killings in February, and with the ongoing chaos of the conflict in the east of the country, Ukrainian society has, suddenly and unexpectedly, become accustomed to facing violent death as an everyday reality. Antypovych’s fantasy cuts close to the bone in a way that the author, when writing the book only a few years ago, could scarcely have predicted. His characters fight for the opportunity to buy extra life by literally buying more time. Many families in Ukraine today face a similar struggle, as they wait in fear for their young men to be called up for military service. In the context of the current conflict, the already existing tradition of bribing one’s way out of compulsory military service has become an urgent, booming business.
Of course, it is not only young men fearing the call-up to whom Antypovych’s dystopia speaks. Ukrainian society as a whole is facing death in a more real and visceral way than at any time since the Second World War, and this reality is particularly harsh in the east, where pro-Russian rebels terrorize local populations with the backing of the Russian state, and the Ukrainian army’s anti-terrorist operation struggles to make headway against them, often causing civilian casualties. Survival is at the forefront of people’s minds, and survival often depends on money—be it for escape, or for protection. In Chronos, the buying of time is a bonus: today, eastern Ukrainians strive to hold on to the time that is, potentially, still left to them.
Chronos was not written about the current crisis. But, in many ways, what we see now is related to processes that have dogged Ukrainian society since independence in 1991. Life expectancy in the country is notoriously low (especially for men); drug and alcohol abuse are major killers, while Ukraine’s HIV problem is among the worst in Europe. Given the scarcity of resources and pathetic wages for state-employed health workers, health care is unreliable, and bribery is rife. Money can literally be the difference between life and death. Time can be bought.
Of course, Ukraine is hardly unique in these respects: the correlation between wealth and the ability to obtain medical care (and thus life expectancy) is characteristic of many Western countries, not least the US. And while the system is unsatisfactory, most Ukrainians manage the petty bribes much as you might manage payment for any other service, and things do function, in their own way. But for those who can’t manage, there is no safety net, as there still is in countries like the UK.
Ultimately, Chronos is, as all good visions of the future should be, more than just an attempt to divert the reader into fantasy worlds. While Antypovych’s expert handling of the genre could well play a key role in widening the appeal of Ukrainian literature in Ukraine and beyond, his book is more than entertainment, or a sign of Ukrainian literature expanding into new territories. The resonances of Chronos for contemporary Ukrainians are deep and clear, as they are for many around the world, from the Middle East to the poverty-stricken in Western democracies, for whom the negotiation of the line between life and death remains acute.
Published Sep 12, 2014 Copyright 2014 Uilleam Blacker