In the pages of this book we meet a reporter from the war in Syria who survived an armed attack (“Termites”), an allegedly ordinary American family whose daughter committed a monstrous crime (“Walk With Us”), and the melancholic descendant of an émigré political activist from Ukraine who is searching his place in NY and trying to find the sources of self in the familial past (“The Man Who Would Not Bow”). We also encounter a historical fantasy on Gogol/Hohol (“Gogol’s Noose”), a chronicle of college sexual life, shot through with the dark realities of divorce and the death of the hero’s mother (“Embodiment”), and a character’s attempt to understand the life of his parents in their country of origin (“‘Little Fascist Panties’”).
What unites all these stories is a search for grounding in the ancestral past, an attempt to overcome a deep existential crisis. Such existential quest for meaning often blurs the plot, relocating the dramatic action into the inner space of the character, whose troubled mind is seeking a rudder. Very often Melnyczuk’s protagonists embark on their quests for meaning after the death of their parents.
One of the main themes of Melnyczuk’s stories is the haunting legacy of wartime suffering inherited from these departed parents. It is exactly this that pushes a young journalist from the United States, Oliver Street, to go to the Middle East to report on war in “Termites.” Having purposely experienced war firsthand, he now better understands the World War II experience of his mother Yulia, “whose stories about her war suddenly felt less abstract.”
However, this improved understanding of his mother does not provide him with a clue to himself, to his own identity. The extreme experience of war does gives him consolation in Umayyad Mosque, when “Oliver felt he was standing in the center of the world,” but religion is a shaky foundation for Oliver’s ultimate peace. Integrating his war experience and his new understanding of his mother into his identity proves almost an impossible task when he returns to the US. By the end of the story, when Oliver feels alienation from his previous life: “Something was wrong. Something was missing. He could feel it. There was a hole in the heart of the city.”
In Melnyczuk’s other stories, war is often connected to the figures of Ukrainian survivors of WWII and postwar migrants to the US, whose heritage is an object for their children’s reflections in the US.
In the short story “Embodiment,” a divorced man in crisis faces the death of his mother, whom he rarely visits when she is alive. When she is gone, he comes to her home to sort out her possessions, “pieces of the past.” Being desperate to capture the past, he talks to her as if she is alive. He recounts a story he heard countless times from her lips. As a schoolboy, his mother’s father is waiting for the principal when “Tolstoy marches into the room.” He is not really sure whether the main character of this story was Tolstoy or Trotsky, but he compensates for the unreliability of his memory, arriving at an epiphany: “Telling me that story made mother feel part of history. Images of people no one else remembers are leaving her body and entering mine.”
For Melnyczuk’s protagonist, dealing with memories of the past is connected to the act of writing, which is simultaneously painful and therapeutic: “The collective weight of the memories threatened to bury me, so I began this journal.” Unknown faces from photos, medals from WWII, and ancestors you did not meet can become alive with the help of imagination and narrative. This is what embodiment really means, and the images and medals become sources of self for Melnyczuk’s narrator.
“‘Little Fascist Panties’” is yet another story that explores how a parent’s memories of war form a living part of the identity of their children. “The war, which had forced their family to flee their native city, had been over for half a century, but it didn't seem completely over yet,” Russ observes. His mother’s death reunites a whole new generation, but after their “reunion of shadows,” they are not interested in maintaining familial ties.
Likewise, the war becomes a vital point on Russ’s mental map. He meets his cousin Larissa, who lives with her father. Overcome by the images of monsters in his head he goes to Larissa, embarking on an intimate journey that is later invaded by Larissa’s father. Russ remains without a clue, lingering on his imaginary familial shadows, and lonely because no one can share his concern. Like Orpheus in Hell, he takes a final glance: “Before disappearing from her world forever, he turned once more.”
“The Criminal Element” and “A Brief History of the Little Colon People” are fragmentary meditations about characters’ roots, American presidents, fantasies, religion, the rich and the poor, Gogol/Hohol, Susan Sontag and photography, “brutish third world regimes,” etc. These philosophical pieces shed light on the complex universes of the protagonists of the preceding stories, like Oliver and Russ. But a story of the parents’ generation offers a more reliable clue to Melnyczuk’s characters. “The Man Who Would Not Bow” is central to understanding the whole book.
After a failed attempt to rescue the Russian tsar and his family from execution, Mykola (Nikolai Gogol’s Ukrainian given name) is unable to reconcile himself to living with the historical winners, the Bolsheviks/communists, and leaves his homeland. Living in a new country, the United States, does not guarantee relief from the burden of the past. He manages to survive the communists, but one of Mykola’s brothers perishes in the Gulag and another during the Holodomor.
Mykola, a witness and survivor from the Old World, carries in himself his unfinished story, which is always in the background. In the context of the life he has settled into in America, his politically active, revolutionary past becomes an idle, unmentionable vestige: “Mykola never talked about this period in his life; it was like he’d dreamed it, like it had been a movie watched through the smoke of a burning theater where no one had bothered to cry ‘fire!’”
“An activist to the core,” Mykola does not participate in American social life and thus his family becomes his focus, especially his son Serge: “Serge regarded his father the same way the old man had viewed the Tsar. Some tyrants ruled empires; others had only their families to command. Both shared a faith in the rule of the fist.”
Raised by an authoritarian father, Serge’s existential angst becomes his true inheritance. Alienated from his parents and wife, Yulia, he wanders through the streets of the city immersing himself in philosophical reflections: “was there anything constant, anything which couldn’t be taken from him?” He escapes his father’s control, but paradoxically loses some part of himself after his parents’ death: “Without their support, he felt himself naked and alone, facing a force that was anonymous, invisible, and everywhere.”
Finally, he becomes a guard of the cultural and historical “lost grandeur” of his ancestral heritage, despite losing his wife and two sons due to his work for a communist paper in the US. “He felt his soul’s nobility: We are promised a great destiny, even if its ultimate fulfillment flowers only in paradise at the end of time,” Melnyczuk concludes.
In “Gogol’s Noose,” Melnyczuk highlights Hohol’s double identity, caught as he was between the Russian Empire and his Ukrainian ethnic community. Melnyczuk emphasizes the great author’s vulnerability and susceptibility when dealing with the empire, as this was the only means by which he could secure a broader readership and inscribe his name in history. But the choice Hohol makes leaves him psychologically damaged. He envies Pushkin: “He wished he had Pushkin’s nerve. Pushkin warred with czars while Nikolai, intimidated by the consequence of dissent, wrote dithyrambs in their honor.”
Reading The Man Who Would Not Bow, I was astounded when one of Melnyczuk’s characters deliberately set off to a war to better understand his mother’s experience of WWII. This is probably one of the kindest tributes people can pay to the suffering of their ancestors.
While I suspect this element of the plot to be autobiographical, it also reflects my current circumstances. As I find myself living through war and writing in-between air raid sirens, I too much better understand the life and works of post-WWII Ukrainian writers, including Yurii Kosach, who is the main character of my book.
Though written and released before the full-scale Russia-Ukraine war, Melnyczuk’s short stories are serendipitously topical and true to life.
I read about Mykola’s father, who worked in the coal mines outside Luhansk and died young, and think about the current and future heavy battles against the Russian army in eastern Ukraine. I read about WWII Lviv and the Opera House Melnyczuk’s Mykola remembers clearly and think about my friends who volunteer in Lviv for Ukrainian IDPs, warmly welcoming survivors from the evacuation trains from eastern Ukraine. I read about Serge’s mother, who watched her son memorize Shevchenko’s poetry, and I think about Shevchenko’s monument in Borodianka, riddled with Russian bullets. I also can’t help thinking about the monument to Shevchenko in Kharkiv, currently protected by sandbags, patiently waiting to be liberated.
While reading about Hohol in this collection, I watched news reports about Russian missiles attacking his town, Myrhorod. I also saw signs of historical justice and hope: monuments to the imperial poet Pushkin are now being dismantled in Ukrainian cities.
Askold Melnyczuk’s stories are about change. They honor the plasticity and flexibility of memory: war, cultural symbols, gamed figures, and familial stories are always undergoing reconsideration. The wounds of the past and present are open, bleeding, but does that mean that Melnyczuk’s Oliver, Mykola, or Hohol have to capitulate? That they continue to search for their roots, pursuing their own sense of Ukrainianness, gives me hope.
Olha Poliukhovych, PhD, literary critic and scholar, public intellectual, is an associate professor at the Department of Literature of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Since the full-scale Russia-Ukraine war, she has been featured on LitHub podcasts and has published essays in Agni, Consequence forum, and Prospect Magazine. Currently, she works on her book of Yurii Kosach’s intellectual biography.
Acknowledgment: I would like to express my immense gratitude to Lesia Waschuk for her professional and thoughtful editing of my review.