This month has been an unusual one in my reading life. Shortly after the news of Russian forces invading Ukraine, I took the decision to spend March exploring Ukrainian literature. With the exception of a few non-fiction titles I’m looking at for other writing projects, I devoted my reading time over the following four weeks to books from the nation, drawing my choices from suggestions shared with me on Twitter, posted on other platforms, and published in a rash of recent articles, such as this.
I think it’s the first time I’ve focused on one country for an extended period since I started reading the world. To date, I’ve tended to skip about between nations as my curiosity, research obligations and other people’s recommendations dictate. It was fascinating to dedicate a period of time to a body of writing from a particular region, and see what connections and thoughts this generated.
First, a couple of caveats. It’s important, particularly when talking about literature in translation, not to fall into the visibility trap – the assumption that what is available in English is a representative spread of a community’s stories. The factors that decide which books travel beyond their country of origin’s borders are complicated, various and shifting. Often (as I have discussed previously), the tiny proportion of stories that make it into the world’s most published language from many parts of the world say more about what feels authentic to commissioning editors in London and New York (and what their marketing departments believe people like you and me want to read) than they do about the breadth and character of a particular region’s literature. (Although it is to be hoped that initiatives such as the recent translation drive spearheaded by Tault may do something to change this, at least in Ukraine’s case.)
Broadbrush generalisations, such as the tendency for Ukrainian literature to contain irreverence, humour and the sort of defiant resilience in the face of oppression we have seen reported in many news stories, are easy to make. Indeed, I have encountered numerous examples in recent weeks – from the contrarian heroine of Tanja Maljartschuk’s A Biography of a Chance Miracle, translated by Zenia Tompkins, and the outrageous gangsters who stalk the pages of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk, to the quixotic plot to force the EU to grant Ukraine membership by smuggling the entire population through a tunnel into Hungary that forms the premise of Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler.
What’s more, it would be tempting to say that works such as Carbide – published with the tagline ‘The much anticipated response to Voltaire’s Candide’ – and Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscoviad, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky and built around a 24-hour binge in Moscow after the manner of James Joyce’s Ulysses, reveal a streak of audacity in Ukrainian writing. Just as Oksana Zabuzhko deconstructs the novel form and language itself in her groundbreaking Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, translated by Halyna Hryn, so these writers appear unafraid of helping themselves to the world’s classics and turning them to their own ends.
Yet, to make claims like this without knowledge of what hasn’t made it through the translation bottleneck would be foolish. It would be to forget that these themes and characteristics may have been part of what made publishers judge these stories to have international appeal – and that collectively they may present a somewhat distorted picture, one that at least partly reflects anglophone interests and concerns. Reading in English as I do, I could not hope to achieve a balanced, comprehensive survey of Ukrainian literature, even if I devoted a year to the project.
So what was I trying to achieve with this kind of targeted reading? For many of those who have scoured the round-ups of Ukrainian literature shared around the web in recent weeks, a desire to understand the horrors unfolding in the nation will have been a key motivation. This is quite natural and certainly anyone who spends time reading translated literature from Ukraine will be left in no doubt as to the complexity and longevity of the tensions that have fuelled this crisis. Perhaps one of the most nuanced and engrossing depictions can be found in Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, translated by Boris Dralyuk, which comes out in the US this week.
Taking too anthropological or socio-historical an approach to reading makes me uneasy, however. I have never been comfortable with the idea of books speaking for their communities. I don’t think individual stories can be reliable telescopes through which to view life elsewhere. Nor should they be.
So, I decided to return to first principles and remind myself of the ethos that underpinned this project when I launched it ten years ago: curiosity; exploration; accessing voices; seeing what spoke most powerfully to me.
This month, that turned out to be Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov, translated by Uilleam Blacker. Put together over email while celebrated film-maker Sentsov was imprisoned in Russia on dubious terrorism charges (he was released as part of a prisoner exchange in 2019), the translation of the collection contains a series of autobiographical pieces centred largely on childhood, plus an opening biography that, according to Blacker, was originally included by mistake.
The simplicity and directness of the writing is disarming. ‘A bit about my personal life: for more than ten years I’ve been living with the same woman. I’m married to her. I have two little kids with her. I love them all,’ runs a section of the erroneously included ‘Autobiography (In Literary Form)’ – in which Sentsov admits that he didn’t take a nine-to-five job on graduating because he’d have murdered his co-workers and that he spent a year ‘ripping people off’ selling herbal products on a market stall.
When he turns this frankness to childhood, the writing soars. The depiction of the bond between a boy and his pet in ‘Dog’, for example, is deeply moving:
‘It was fun to hang out in a gang, but I preferred walking alone in the forest with my dog. They were unforgettable moments. When he searches for you, after you’ve deliberately stayed behind a bit and hidden in the bushes. Searches for you and finds you. And how happy you are when you find each other again after such a brief parting. The dog is happy that he found his master, and the master is happy that he has such a clever dog, and you’re both happy because you love each other and you’re together again.’
This switch into the present tense is a hallmark of the collection. At such moments, it is as though Sentsov turns to the reader to compare notes, saying: ‘you recognise this, don’t you? You’ve been here.’ And even if you haven’t, the power of the writing – the trust and confidence it contains – is strong enough to sweep you into the vision, so that it is as if you too, in your childhood, walked through the woods with your dog.
Humour works to strengthen this connection. This is less the thrawn, irreverent wit we sometimes see celebrated as being distinctively Ukrainian than an affectionate admission of the ludicrousness of human existence, often linked to an awareness of its fragility. In ‘Testament’, for example, the narrator imagines his funeral and the scattering of his ashes in the rain, with a cheeky grandchild peering into the urn to see a clump of Grandpa still hanging on. Similarly, numerous walk-on characters are endowed with quirks that could easily be handled cruelly and yet, through Sentsov’s eyes, seem oddly precious because of their uniqueness and ephemerality. (Witness: Svetka, the talentless would-be singer who sets her sights on stardom decades before the TV screens are thronged with tone-deaf wannabes.)
At root, the writing is driven by a profound empathy that enables Sentsov to inhabit the rounded, conflicted reality of a huge number of the figures who pass through his pages. As he does in ‘Grandma’, he excels at presenting a situation and then taking the reader inside the truth of it, revealing how far from simple even the most bald of statements may turn out to be. In this way, he reveals the workings of some of humanity’s most profound and problematic experiences – from childhood bullying to the development of social conscience, and from the processing of guilt and loss to the passing of time – using his own life and perspective as the lens through which to focus his vision.
For this – to me, at least – is what great stories are. Not explanations. Not studies of human action. Not definitive representations of the experiences of particular groups. But a person saying: here I am in all my silliness, vulnerability, wonder and mystery. And this is how the world looks to me.
Life Went on Anyway: Stories by Oleg Sentsov, translated from the Russian by Uilleam Blacker (Deep Vellum, 2019)