JANUARY 7, 2021
AFTER FALLING INTO an open sewer hole, Tys, a drunken history teacher in a small Transcarpathian town, conceives of his great contribution to Ukrainian society — building a tunnel underneath the border with Hungary to smuggle all 40-plus million Ukrainians into the European Union. “Once all of Ukraine is inside the EU,” he declares, “those hapless bureaucrats will have no choice but to grant us membership! Nobody’s ever done anything like this before — that’s for sure — but we’ll make it work. It’ll be our own special path to a European future!” So begins Andriy Lyubka’s novel Carbide, now available in a lively English translation by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. It is a fast-paced tragicomedy which establishes the young author as Ukraine’s modern-day Voltaire.
First published in Ukrainian in 2015, shortly after the Revolution of Dignity, Carbide reflects the hopes and frustrations of a country that still struggles to achieve the necessary socioeconomic and political reforms to truly align itself with the West. Tys may be prone to delirious, vodka-fueled speeches about Ukrainian history that fall on deaf ears — as when he informs the mayor, an ethnic Hungarian, that European integration is in his blood — but his love for Ukraine is sincere, and, in fact, all-consuming. To make his European dream a reality, Tys first goes to his friend and former classmate, Icarus, a petty criminal who made his money in the 1990s by smuggling contraband across the border. Soon enough, other local criminals get involved in the project, each increasingly more sinister than the last, including a sexy organ trafficker nicknamed “the Succubus.” After they secure the mayor’s cooperation, the conspirators agree to build a “Fountain of Unity” in the city center to celebrate Ukraine and Europe’s relationship, so that they can dig the tunnel in plain sight without raising suspicion.
What future is there for a country where there is only honor among thieves? When politicians are the first to take advantage of a criminal scheme to make a quick buck? Burdened by the weight of the accomplishments of the great historical figures who preceded him, Tys has no other choice but to pursue his crazy idea to the end. His wife is fed up with him, and his students don’t take him seriously. There is nothing else left for him in this world. And so the hope for Ukraine’s long-awaited return to Europe is born in excrement — a development that would surely have tickled Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque fancy — and co-opted by criminals. All this serves as a reminder that romantic aspirations can take one only so far, and that, eventually, every revolution tries to devour its young. The reader should not despair, however. The novel is rich in comedy, which is so characteristic of the spirit of Ukrainian literature as a whole.
Ukrainian literature has remained one of the best-kept secrets of the English translation market. Although the works of such prolific authors as Yuri Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, and Serhiy Zhadan have been available for years, it seems that, until now, translations of Ukrainian writing have mostly been appreciated by scholars and students of the region. But thanks to enterprising small publishing houses like Deep Vellum, Lost Horse, and now Jantar, it looks like that might be changing. One breakout Ukrainian success of the past few years was Life Went on Anyway, a collection of autobiographical stories by Oleg Sentsov, a writer and filmmaker who was wrongfully imprisoned by Russia for supposedly participating in terrorist activity. While Sentsov and Lyubka differ greatly in terms of style, it is worth reading them together, for both writers capture aspects of the soul of post-Maidan Ukraine.
In 2013, Ukrainians gathered on the Maidan, the main square of Kyiv, and later on elsewhere throughout Ukraine, to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union. This moment in the country’s history, when its people took a stand against the corrupt, pro-Russian leadership and prevailed, came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity. It was not without cost, however. The protests carried on for weeks, turning violent when special forces officers started attacking protestors. Those who lost their lives came to be known as the “Heavenly Hundred,” and monuments in their memory can be found in small villages and large cities alike. Eventually, the ousted Yanukovych fled to Russia, along with many of his corrupt associates, and Ukrainians rejoiced at the opportunity to build a better future for the country, one that was more closely aligned with the West. Unfortunately, after the triumph of the revolution, Russia-backed separatists began taking control of the eastern region of Donbas and Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Nearly seven years later, the war in Donbas is ongoing.
What has changed for the better since those dark days? For one thing, thanks to a surge in national pride, the Ukrainian language has flourished, and, consequently, so have Ukrainian literature and cinema. In recent years, many artists have explored the social consequences of revolution, war, and the the need to break free of Ukraine’s Soviet past. But not all these artists work exclusively in Ukrainian. Andriy Lyubka originally hails from Vynohradiv, a small town in Zakarpattia, Southwestern Ukraine, and has spoken Ukrainian all of his life. Oleg Sentsov is from Simferopol, the second-largest city on the Crimean Peninsula, and writes largely in Russian. This has always been the beauty of Ukraine — its diversity. If you walk through the downtown area of any major Ukrainian city, you can hear conversations in more than one language at the same time. Each region possesses its own unique character, its linguistic blends; what brings Ukrainians together, despite these so-called differences, is a greater sense of Ukrainian identity, which has triumphed over years of conflict.
In 2014, after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Sentsov became known to the whole world when Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested him and several others for allegedly plotting terrorist acts — charges that international organizations described as fabricated. He was tried as a Russian citizen and sentenced to 20 years in a penal colony. In 2018, at significant risk to his health, Sentsov declared a hunger strike that went on for 145 days to demand the release of all of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. The photos taken at the peak of his hunger strike are haunting; he promised to go on for as long as necessary, even if that meant “until the end.” Andriy Lyubka, like many other prominent Ukrainian artists, did his part to try and keep Sentsov’s name in the fickle news cycle. On the seventh day of Sentsov’s hunger strike, for example, Lyubka declared a kind of hunger strike of his own and encouraged others to do the same. “I understand that such an individual act will not significantly change the situation,” he wrote on social media, “but we cannot just watch a man die behind bars.” So he advised people to try skipping a meal to not only understand but empathize with the gravity of Sentsov’s plight and to try and bring more attention to it.
A prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in September 2019 finally reunited Sentsov and other captive Ukrainians with their families. Uilleam Blacker’s elegant English translation of Sentsov’s Life Went on Anyway was released in November of that year. The eight stories it contains focus on key moments from the author’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood leading up to and following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In essence, the book chronicles the shaping of a strong moral compass that would eventually thrust Sentsov onto the center stage of Ukraine’s greatest political crisis since 1991. “Everybody says childhood is the happiest time in your life,” he writes. “Agreed. But I would also add that it is the brightest. Usually. For almost everybody. I feel truly sorry for all those who never had a childhood, or for whom it finished early, or for whom it wasn’t bright enough.”
Throughout the collection, Sentsov reflects with humility on the lessons life has taught him. In “Hospital,” for example, a young Sentsov comes to understand the importance of protecting those who are most vulnerable, when, recovering from a tonsillectomy at a seaside sanatorium, he witnesses a boy from a supposedly good family torment another boy with Down syndrome. None of the children do anything to defend him. Later on, the mother of the boy with Down syndrome comes to visit him. As the young Sentsov watches their loving embrace, he feels enormous guilt for having failed to defend the boy — who, as it turns out, was no different from him or any other child; the guilt is more painful than the tonsillectomy itself.
The final story, “The Makars,” which chronicles the downfall of the family that lived next door to Sentsov’s, crosses over from the personal into the political. One can’t help but read it as a foreshadowing of the bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Makar was one of Sentsov’s closest childhood friends, “one of those people you don’t remember meeting, you’ve just known them forever.” Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, he returns from military service in Khabarovsk, Russia, and begins to pursue a life of crime, while Sentsov goes off to study at university. As it is with many childhood friendships, the two begin to drift apart. Years later, when Sentsov returns to their village, he is met by Makar, who has lost both of his legs in an accident. Alcoholism eventually claims his life when he drunkenly passes out and freezes to death in the snow. The Makar family house is left abandoned, and the fence that separated the two properties, where Makar and Sentsov would always meet, “is still there, and it’s still bent and sagging in the same place, there’s just nobody to climb over and visit anymore.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union came an end to illusions of a brotherhood of Slavic nations — though the Russian government still hypocritically advocates that brotherhood to this day, even as they continue to fuel the war in Donbas, in which over 10,000 lives have been lost. Ukraine and Russia have a shared history, but the future of their relationship remains uncertain, for their chosen paths couldn’t be more different.
What Oleg Sentsov and Andriy Lyubka make clear, however, is that the future of Ukrainian literature is bright — and perhaps that bodes well for the nation itself. In pre-COVID-19 times, both authors would have filled auditoriums at the many Ukrainian literary festivals that occur in the fall, drawing Ukrainian readers who are curious, open-minded, and hungry for change. For now, those readers will have to satisfy themselves with the authors’ written words. And thanks to the efforts of a new crop of skillful, dedicated translators, Anglophone readers can do the same.