28 October 2011

(De)constructing a national memory – the presence of the past in post-independence Ukrainian literature.

Також не пишу я про гуннів, про готів,
Ані про манкуртів, ні про яничарів,
Ані про Батурин, ані про Почаїв,
Ні про Калнишевського, ні про Мазепу.
Варю собі каву. Читаю газету.
Ходжу до клозету. Ходжу до театру.

I don’t write about Huns or Goths,
Nor about Mankurts nor Janissaries,
Nor about Baturyn nor Pochaiv,
Nor about Kalnyshevskyi, nor Mazepa.
I make myself coffee. I read the paper.
I go to the loo. I go to the theatre.
Oleksandr Irvanets’

Ukrainian literature has always contained within itself the imperative to remember. The very title of the foundation stone of Ukrainian literature, Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar, alludes to the traditional bard, who would record and retell significant events. The narrator in his Haidamaky thanks his forebears for passing on the heroic story of the warrior Cossacks, and fulfils the same duty himself. Time and again Shevchenko urges his readers to ‘read’ and ‘study’ their past. This is nothing unusual, of course: literature, as incorporated into nation-building projects, has always played a key role with regard to cultural memory, propagating and retelling national myths, commemorating triumph and tragedy, forging a vision of the past to be shared by the readers of a particular linguistic/ethnic community. Literature maps out the national memory, allowing consecutive generations to find their place within the nation, and their nation’s rightful, independent place in the world. This is especially significant in the Ukrainian context: the production and institutionalisation of a national history was, for most of Ukraine’s history, impossible, or at least, extremely difficult. It was left to literature to preserve the past. Hence Haidamaky, Ivan Franko’s Zakhar Berkut, Lesia Ukrainka’s Boiarynia, Bohan Lepkyi’s Mazepa, Lina Kostenko’s Marusia Churai, to give a few examples.

In 1991, Ukraine gained its independence, and with it the right to remember its past free (at least, that was the idea) from ideological manipulations, censorship and the tyranny of ‘blank spaces’. The blank spaces began to be filled by historians as the nation began to reconstruct and rediscover its memory. But what of literature’s role as the nation’s memory in this new situation? Perhaps one might have expected a flush of historical novels about Ukraine’s past, telling the stories of struggle and oppression that could not be told previously. No such wave of historical literature transpired. Where are the novels about the Holodomor, the struggles for independence, the Stalinist terror, Ukraine’s Second World War, Ukraine’s Holocaust? Of course, one can find historical themes in contemporary Ukrainian literature, mainly in the works of the ‘old guard’ of Ukrainian literature, Roman Ivanychuk and Valerii Shevchuk, for example, who lived with Soviet censorship for much of their careers. But the tendency has, especially among the younger generations of writers, been to turn away from the duty of preserving the nation’s memory.

Why should this be? Perhaps that past is simply too difficult, too painful, too complex. Perhaps Ukrainian writers are afraid of this challenge? Perhaps they are simply unwilling to meet it. After all, in the post-independence era, they are no longer obliged to be the guardians of national culture. Perhaps Ukrainian literature has thus lost its memory?

Of course, this is not the case. In the 1990s, two important phenomena lifted the role of describing the past was from the shoulders of young writers: first, the wave of literary texts written during the Soviet period but never published for ideological reasons, many of them historical, and second, the resurgence of history and particularly memoir literature on previously forbidden periods of the past. This gave younger writers a breathing space, and in this space memory began to take on varied, unusual forms. Literary memory no longer had to be a surrogate for a unified national history, and so become many memories. These are most often individual and local, and only touch on the national tangential ways. The poetry of the Bu-Ba-Bu poets of the immediate pre- and post-independence periods is a case in point. These poets do not sing the praises of great Ukrainians of the past, or cry over Ukraine’s great historical tragedies: they draw strange, chimerical apparitions from the past of their immediate locality, from the city of L’viv. Indeed, Andrukhovych’s essays, such as those in Disorientation in Location or My Europe, offer a vision of the past of Ukraine and of Galicia that is highly subjective, ironic and idiosyncratic. This past is filtered through personal memory, through family memory, through local memory. It is a past that is contained in the faded, foreign language inscriptions on an old wall, and not the stagnant myths of the national past, writ large in stone monuments. This is a past as fragmented as that of our own imperfect memories. Often the past is filtered through forms of memory so experimental and strange that they differ little from imagination. Examples include the works of almost all of Ukraine’s leading literary names, such as Iurii Vynnychuk, Taras Prokhasko, Serhii Zhadan, Oleskandr Irvanets, Vasyl Kozhelianko , Iurii Izdryk, Andrei Kurkov and others.
The subjective, multiple, fragmented approach to the past is nothing new: it is one of the basic features of the culture of our global, postmodernist age, and can be found in various forms throughout the world. While the Ukrainian variants of this practice are distinct, they represent a falling into line with the global trends of the 1980s and 1990s. Global trends change, however, and in recent times, especially in Anglo-American fiction, the ‘traditional’ historical novel has in fact begun to make a comeback. In its 41 year history, the Man Booker Prize has only been won six times by historical novels, and three of those were in the last ten years; this year’s favourite, Allan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, is set in Georgian England. These novels are not the magical realist views of the past of Garcia Marquez, or the historical metafiction of Thomas Pyncheon, but a return to ‘straight’ historical fiction. They are to an extent a reaction against the irony and games of postmodernist pasts.

Once again, Ukrainian literature does not lag behind. In 2009 Oksana Zabuzhko played a formidable hand in the historical fiction stakes with her enormous novel on the controversial topic of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Granted, the novel’s scale, historical scope and complexity means it is not an easy piece of historical entertainment – nevertheless, it does resort to many of the traditional features of historical fiction, and pretends very much to historical verisimilitude. In the same year, Vasyl Shkliar made the headlines after winning the prestigious Shevchenko prize for his novel about anti-Soviet Ukrainian resistance in the 1920s, Black Raven. The book became a huge success.

Thus, as in the UK and elsewhere around the world, the historical novel is back in the headlines in Ukraine, winning prizes and attracting readers. Ukraine shows once again that it is very much in touch with global cultural trends. Or does it? The first thing that distinguishes Shkliar and Zabuzhko from their Western counterparts is their highly political agendas. Zabuzhko’s novel has also raised eyebrows, given its sharply nationalistic agenda, its openly political digressions, and what some see as a simplistically heroic depiction of the UPA. Shkliar hit the headlines when he refused to accept his Shevchenko prize in protest at the ‘Ukrainophobic’ attitude of controversial Education and Science Minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk. Hilary Mantel, 2009 Booker winner, is unlikely to become embroiled in bitter conflict with politicians in the UK over her work, or to reject her prize for these reasons. Of course, Mantel does not have to deal with a government that regularly displays open contempt for the language in which she writes and the culture she represents.

The return to prominence of the historical novel in the West occurs in a depoliticized literary climate: in Ukraine it occurs in an increasingly politicised one. With the new dominance of the Yanukovych regime, writers can no longer relax in the knowledge that their national past is theirs to play with, to fragment and even undermine, if they so wish. That past is now under threat, once again, from authority, and thus memory once again becomes a shield, even a weapon, as opposed to a tool of the imagination. National memory cannot remain fragmented, it must be consolidated for purposes of defence. Memory thus turns to those parts of the past that remind us of the struggle against oppression: the UPA, the partisans. Memory becomes a national shield; it becomes nationalist.

So are Ukrainian writers once again taking up arms and fighting for memory using memory? Perhaps it is too early to say. Voroshylovhrad, the latest novel by one of Ukraine’s finest contemporary writer, Serhii Zhadan, would suggest otherwise. Zhadan’s work has always been preoccupied with memory, yet the topic blossoms strikingly in Voroshylovhrad, in which the Soviet past of a small, East Ukrainian town and the individual past of the protagonist meld in a narrative that is part magic-realism, part beat novel, that is as mercilessly sardonic as it is unashamedly poetic. In Zhadan’s vision, the traumatic and politically sensitive Soviet period is dealt with not through confrontational politics, but through subjective memory and the imagination.

Voroshylovhrad proves that memory tactics in Ukrainian literature are still varied. Whether the dominant tendency will be a retreat into the nationalist martialling of memory, or the continuation of innovative and multifarious memory narratives, remains to be seen. In this regard, much depends, of course, on the writers. Unfortunately, much also depends on the politicians.

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