Friday, August 12, 2022

A Russian Story by Kononenko


A Russian Story / Eugenia Kononenko
trans. from the Ukrainian by Patrick John Corness
London: Glagoslav, 2013.
124 p.

Despite the title, this is a very Ukrainian story; it investigates the life of an average man whose life seems to take on the outlines of the classic Pushkin story, Eugene Onegin. 

But more than that simple idea, Eugene Samarsky's situation highlights the place of a man in Ukraine during the end of the Soviet Union and the beginnings of independent Ukraine. He reflects that social change -- and how hard it is for older generations to change in step with the rapid shifts in society. 

As a young man, Eugene starts to hang around with a group who proudly reclaim Ukrainian as their language, and who are involved with restoring Ukrainian culture (both visual and literary) in their circles. The narrative comments on the use of Ukrainian and the different shades of meaning in how and why they speak it; there is also discussion of how Russian culture has overwhelmed the sense of identity for many Ukrainian citizens. Eugene's mother is a teacher of Russian literature and loves it; she even named him after Eugene Onegin. And his great uncle is one of those country fellows of Russian literature; living in a manor in a small village in Eastern Ukraine, he has no direct heirs, so invites Eugene to come and stay. 

Since Eugene has just left his wife and child and is at loose ends (not wanting to return to his parents' home, where they are equally uninterested in having their adult son live with them) so he agrees to this invitation.

His uncle dies shortly after his arrival, and Eugene takes possession of the house, and develops a routine. However, his plans to write in solitude are rather disrupted by the villagers. They are accustomed to dropping in on his uncle as they wish, just coming right in and delivering milk, produce, etc. and settling in for a chat. Eugene begins to be drawn into the village life, including a family with two young and pretty daughters; he also befriends the local doctor. But fate intervenes, and in a struggle over the elder daughter one night after drinking, Eugene knocks down the doctor and believes he's killed him. The younger daughter whisks him to the train station, from whence he flees to America -- fortunately he's just been offered a writing position there. But is a Russian story inevitable?

Much of the book takes place in America, much later on, with chapters filling in Eugene's backstory. The opening is memorable, with Eugene and his American professor wife picnicking on a hill with Eugene's ex-wife, her new French partner, and their son. The most awkward difficulty of this picnic isn't the relationships - they all get along fine - but which language to speak. Between them they have varied combinations of  French, English, Ukrainian and Russian, but the only common ground for all is Russian. This is another highlight of the way language doesn't define national identity for any of them. 

I really enjoyed the style of this one, and the reflections on language, the stories that shape culture, and the way in which Russian monoculture overshadows so much of what they all do, no matter if they're in Kyiv or middle America. I thought it was a clever story with references to literary tropes and characters gently blended in. I'm sure that reading it in the original would have been an even more evocative experience as the references would be clearer to a local reader. Still, I thought it examined a lot of intriguing themes that make the reader think, and the ending was pretty great. The last page makes the whole story pay off. I liked this one a lot. 

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