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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Behind the Curtain

When visiting Ukraine earlier this year, I spent most of my last day in Kiev desperately looking for a Ukrainian novel in English (or German or French). Not much luck on that front. Book stores there either had nothing in a language other than Ukrainian or Russian or sold a few foreign classics or trashy novels. I finally hit upon a used-book store in basement somewhere sharing its entrance with a rather seedy bar. There I found the only two novels translated into English that seemingly had been written in Ukrainian (I am sure there have been many others, but again, these are the only two I found in Ukraine's capital, so there). I proceeded to buy both of them, depriving any future intellectually curious tourist of them.

And I now finally read one of them. Borys Antonenko-Davydovych's Behind the Curtain is not the greatest novel of all times. It supposedly (according to Leonid Boyko on the cover) was "a novel which provoked heated discussion in the Soviet press" though. I have to admit that I am not sure why. Really it is a relatively short account of a Ukrainian Moscow-educated doctor's experience living in Uzbekistan with his annoying wife, his mother very much of a rural background, and his young child. The doctor clearly brings improvement, modernity, to this far-flung corner of the Soviet Union (what is interesting in fact is that Communists could be as neocolonialist in their attitude towards their own backwaters as Westerners could), yet his implication in his work makes him ignore his family. In result his wife becomes ever snappier and self-centered while his mother is slowly dying of cancer. 

It is not a momentous trying to capture a given period or even region, it feels more like a literary attempt at dealing with what happened to the author to his life. Yet, at the same time this author seems incapable of drawing grander lessons from this, either for himself or for us the readers. The novel is sufficient upon itself so to speak. It is neither good nor bad in that sense, it just is.

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