Article published on April 1, 2016.
Unlike some of the countries on this literary globetrot that I’m barely able to spell let alone am familiar with, Ukraine is a country that is now, as a result of recent problematic events, on everyone’s map. And unfortunately for most, the lasting impression will be the one perpetuated in the media. I have neither the knowledge nor inclination to get into matters political or geopolitical here, nor is it the intention of this journey so, without wanting to downplay events but simply steering into lighter waters, I will turn to more general matters, in keeping with the framework of the previous articles.
Bordered predominantly by Russia to the east, Ukraine shares borders with six other countries, Belarus to the north, Poland to the northwest, Slovakia and Hungary to the west and Romania and Moldova to the southwest, and two seas to the south: the Sea of Asov and the Black Sea. With an area of over 600,000km2, Ukraine is also the largest state situated entirely in Europe. Its history dates back thousands of years and as such has a literary tradition that emerges as early as the eleventh century, in largely religious and hagiographic form. But its difficult past has made establishing and maintaining a discrete tradition and identity challenging, and there are often shared nationalities at play in authorial histories. For instance the first hit in a quick search for Ukrainian authors brings up Andrey Kurkov, who was actually born in Russia but is feted as a Ukrainian writer. Even Irene Nemirovsky, born in Kiev, is perhaps more affiliated with France, where she spent a significant part of her life and she wrote her novels in French. (Even when trying to avoid the geopolitics of this region it seems therefore somewhat futile.)
Amongst Ukraine’s most noted writers is the nineteenth-century poet Taras Shevchenko, whose foundational text The Kobzar, which ‘has played an important role in galvanizing the Ukrainian identity and in the development of Ukraine’s written language and…literature’, was translated into English for the first time in 2013. Other recent translations have included The Lost Button by Irene Rozdobudko – the ‘lady detective’ of Ukranian literature; Vasyl Shkliar’s historical novel set four years after the Bolshevik war, Raven’s Way; the multigenerational saga The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zubuzhko; Maria Matios’ family saga Hardly Ever Otherwise; the appealingly named Sarabande of Sara’s Band by Larysa Denysenko, which explores the ‘everyday lives, loves and tribulations of Ukrainians living today’; Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s collection of fables, Autobiography of a Corpse; Marjana Gapoenko’s affirmative tale of a nonagenarian, Who is Martha?; Mikhail Elizarov’s bibliocentric dystopian novel The Librarian; and Serhiy Zhadan’s political novel Depeche Mode. And of course, there was the movie release of Suite Francaise, Irène Némirovsky’s romantic World War II drama which was also published in translation, as have been several of her other novels.
Despite this relative wealth of recent publications, when it came to choosing a book for this leg of the journey it proved something of a challenge. Irène Némirovsky seemed too obvious and her name was already making waves on the international scene. Consequently, I was torn between the offerings of Oksana Zubzhko, Mikhail Elizarov and Marjana Gapoenko. And then, like a bolt out of the blue, I heard about a novel only just published in English, Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, who, as seemingly the way with these things, has links to both Ukraine, where he was born, and Russia where he lives. But the book which won the National Book Award in Russia and the Yasnaya Polyana Book Award and is set in fifteenth century Russia following the life of the titular character offered something interesting and different – indeed very much outside of my normal reading scope but also clearly a highly regarded text. Naturally, the distinctions lauded on it are no guarantees of quality, and choosing the books for this project has been something of a lucky dip. So far I’ve pulled out a few wooden spoons and one or two golden eggs, and this selection, equally, could have gone either way. Fortunately, I’m pleased to say I struck gold. The novel has been described as having flavours of both Umberto Eco and Chaucer! Rather imposing shoes to fill, if ever there were any. Having not read Eco, I can’t comment on the former, and whilst I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the novel echoes Chaucer in style, it obviously fills that same historical orbit and is indeed a singular and distinctive tome in the same way.
Aside from Chaucer, historical fiction has never really been on my radar, and certainly not contemporarily written historical fiction, as this is, but there’s something uniquely appealing about this whole book, and whilst it’s obviously set in the fifteenth century, it never feels too alienating or removed. Nor does it get bogged down in its own historicity, focusing much more on the plot, and the character Arseny, than the historical circumstances and situations of the time. There is, though, a harkening back to the very earliest Ukrainian literary traditions in that the novel has something of the air of hagiography, following as it does the fictional healer and later spiritual icon Arseny, and I thought this was both a neat circling back to and celebration of that former tradition.
The novel is split into four parts, each concerning a different stage of Arseny’s life, beginning with his formative years where he learns his vocation – or calling – as a healer and suffers the tragedy which is to define the rest of his life. This first part was incredibly absorbing and interesting, setting up a strong voice and style that seemed very individual. For me, unfortunately, the narrative drifted somewhat in part two, which follows Arseny as he becomes a holy fool, and it was in this section that I struggled the most with the text and its context. It simply didn’t pack the same emotional and narrative punch as the opening. Parts three and four however picked it back up and the ending brings the whole full circle in a neat and meaningful resolution.
Although Arseny goes through much in the space of the novel – indeed a lifetime, and a full one at that – it isn’t the sort of book that deals in introspection or psychology, so the character himself always remains somewhat distanced. Similarly, despite the trajectories of the plot, there’s no real edge-of-your-seat, by-the-knuckle action here, rather it’s an accumulation of a life’s experiences, but it’s still fascinating stuff. The novel is very strong on style and the author throws in some medieval spelling, as if peppering the pages, at various points. There are also some anachronistically modern idioms that do feel somewhat asynchronous, however this playing around with time is intrinsic to the very fabric and essence of the author’s motivation in the novel, and the fact as he has described it that ‘time does not exist’. And this idea is central to the notion of life and love played out in the pages of the book. Indeed, the lovers in the novel are physically together for the shortest of time and yet love abounds across the entirety of the novel, and beyond. It is a novel very much about the eternal and everlasting quality of the spirit and of love and of man’s finite time on Earth. As such it gets to the very heart of matters religious, philosophical and metaphysical, and offers fertile ground for group discussion.
For me the measure of a great book is that it exists both within and beyond its national setting – that is, it conjures its setting but is not confined by, or to, it, and speaks universally. Laurus does this with ease but also manages an additional transcendentalism, in doing the same with history and time. A well-written and intriguing novel, this one was a pleasure to read.
Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin
Oneworld Publications pbk May 2016