Thursday, May 22, 2008

From Three Worlds

I've been reading quite a lot of Ukrainian writing, in preparation for my trip to Ukraine, coming up in a few weeks. I've read a few collections of historical fiction, some history, and looked through travel guides and language cds. Here is some modern Ukrainian writing I discovered through serendipity -- and I've just finished: From Three Worlds : New Ukrainian Writing (Somerville, MA : Zephyr Press, c1996.) It's part of a series of collected Soviet writing, thus the title; influences come from the 3 worlds of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western/English literature. It's a great collection, full of stories of all types, traditional, surreal, serious, blackly humorous, as well as photo essays and quite a lot of poetry.

This is the book which held the story I mentioned in my last review, another story dealing with the Ukrainian Holodomor. This story, Yevhen Pashkovsky's Five Loaves and Two Fishes, differs from the others I've read recently, in that it is set in the present. It features an old woman copying out lines from the bible, and as she does so, the scripture triggers memories of that period of history; rather than comfort, the scriptures bring traumatic recollections. This is a brief tale, seven pages long, but extremely chilling and mesmerizing reading. The writing itself, the way one sentence shifts between present, past, and biblical phrasing is admirably done. The momentum of the structure carries you from the horrors of memory to the basic complaints of her modern grandson, very minor indeed in comparison. I was very impressed by this story; the entwined elements work in a way that a straightforward historical document does not. I don't think I'll forget this one. It begins:

Every evening Baba Maria took her grandson Pavlo's thick workbook to the shrine in the corner of the room, lit the votive light beneath the icon and, opening the Bible, taught herself to write, tracing each letter onto the blank page. The reflections from the icon gilded her age-freckled hands, the moon blazed wildly above the orchard, its rim chipped by an apple tree -- and she remembered her childhood: the path from the earthen stoop to the stable warmed by the cherry redness of fallen leaves, the white horsehair on a nail by the door, two horseshoes, the little sac of bile to treat the horses for horse-fly bites, there came in those days prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one rose among them by the name of Ahab and through the Spirit prophesied that there would come a great famine throughout the whole world, as was once in the time of Claudius. In the fall military transports snaked through the village, everyone knew that this did not bode well, as they took our horses, collectivized the land, plowed up the graveyard so that we had to break the corpses' knees with a blow to lay them properly in their coffins....

It's a stunning story, by an author who has since won Ukraine's literary Shevchenko Prize.

And as for the poetry, there are also different styles by different poets included, but one I liked seems inspired partly by another element in the Ukrainian psyche, Chernobyl. It is penned by the well-known author Oksana Zabuzhko. I was taken with the imagery in this poem.

Letter From the Summer House

Hello, dear! The land is all rusty again
with acid rain: blackened cucumber vines
jut from the earth like burnt wires.
I'm not sure about the orchard this year.
I've been meaning to get in there and clean it up,
but to tell you the truth, I'm scared of those trees.
I get this feeling when I walk between them
that I'm very close to a place in the grass
where a corpse lies, something teeming with worms,
something hot and laughing.
And I get nervous over sounds.
The day before last, a cry rose up from deep in the garden,
like a meowing or a single grating branch
or a goose being strangled.
It had that despair --
do you remember the elm? Summers ago?
The one that was struck by lightning, and stood there,
a gigantic charred bone?
Sometimes I think it still lords over everything,
infecting the plants with rabid madness.
I don't know how crazy trees act --
maybe they shake off their roots and run amok.
In any case, I keep an axe by the bed.
At least the butterflies are mating. We should see
caterpillars soon. The neighbour's daughter across the way
gave birth -- a boy, long overdue. He had hair
and teeth already;
maybe he's a mutant too, because yesterday,
nine days old, he shouted, "Shut off the sky!"
Then he grew quiet, hasn't said a word since. Otherwise,
he's the picture of health.
So there it is. If you get a chance
to come this weekend, maybe Sunday? bring me
something to read, in a language I don't know.
The ones I call mine are exhausted.

Oksana Zabuzhko

(her only story online can be found in Words without Borders)

A little more Ukrainian-influenced lit will follow shortly, this time Canadian (the end bits of John's Canadian Book Challenge). Somehow this week is just getting away from me; it's been absolutely freezing here, so I've been snuggling up and reading in the evenings, and also doing a bit of baking to warm up the house! Do you need to ask? Chocolate cupcakes, of course. :)


  1. Books and chocolate cupcakes - hard to beat . . . I'll have to look into more Ukrainian writing . . . especially if I ever travel there, as you will.

  2. Wow, that's a powerful poem. How great that you're traveling to Ukraine--enjoy your time there! And enjoy the chocolate cupcakes, too :)


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