by Oleksandr Boichenko
Translated from the Ukrainian by Dmytro Kyyan and Zenia Tompkins
The book of fear and forgottenness
One can, to be sure, say the following: Tanja Maljartschuk wrote a novel about Viacheslav Lypynsky—a political figure, a theoretician of Ukrainian conservatism, and the author of a treatise known by everyone and read by hardly anyone, Letters to My Fellow Grain Farmers. But one can also say this: Tanja Maljartschuk wrote a novel about herself—a past author of six little books, and a manipulator of words and ideas. Yet there’s a problem in that both of these statements are equally far from the truth because what makes the book Forgottenness a novel is neither the figure of Lypynsky nor the “portrayal of the author,” but their contrapuntal coupling.
Ever since writers (Kundera, in particular, but there were others long before him too: for instance, Strindberg, Joyce or Celan) first suggested to critics that a literary work can be composed in accordance with the laws of music, the latter—that is, the critics—set to using terms in the vein of “fugue-poem,” “sonata-drama,” “symphony-novel” and so on left and right. I can’t speak for everyone, nor am I about to determine to which musical form Forgottenness most precisely corresponds, but the fact that the composition of this novel is a borrowing from music is obvious. What do we have here? We have here two distinct themes that, in the process of their development, disintegrate, are transformed, become wreathed in additional motifs, entwine and once more diverge in order to, at long last, definitively meld into a coda.
The book’s first theme is the titular forgottenness. Its bearer is Vyacheslav Lypynsky—an ethnic Pole born in Volyn who, at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, chose a Ukrainian identity and spent the rest of his short life unsuccessfully trying to transform Ukraine into a political nation. What led Tanja to fall in love with him? The fact that, foreseeing the catastrophe to which Ukraine and all of Europe was rolling, Lypynsky categorically rejected both Lenin’s internationalism and Dontsov’s Ukrainian nationalism. He, instead, pursued the idea of a territorial patriotism that would allow representatives of all of Ukraine’s ethnicities to jointly build a common Ukrainian state on Ukrainian soil. The idea sounded good, but from a historical perspective it’s evident that Lypynsky had no chance at success: At the time that he was preaching his version of patriotism, totalitarian ideologies were gaining more and more popularity among grain farmers, as well as among proletarians and a considerable portion of the intelligentsia. Extraneous to both the communists and—to one extent or another—the fascists, and fatigued from being sick, poor and misunderstood, he died in expatriation in Austria in June of 1931 and for long decades remained forgotten in an ultimately un-erected Ukraine.
The novel’s second theme is fear, as embodied by… No, naturally, no one among is so naïve as to confuse the novel’s narrator with Tanja Maljartschuk. And yet… When you know that five years have passed already since the real Tanja moved to that same Austria, where she’s spent her entire time on Lypynsky, and then read in Forgottenness about the fictitious narrator’s spurning of her previous work and her search for new words, about her panic attacks and the “heart in her throat,” and particularly about the blue whale of time that mills and chews, like microscopic plankton, millions of lives into a homogenous mass, you begin to suspect who this is referring to: “It wasn’t the disappearance that grieved me the most, but the tracelessness of it. I thought to myself, with one foot I’m already there, in total forgottenness.” And even who this is referring to: “On more than one occasion later he will be gripped by the sensation that he’s lying at the very bottom, where it’s cold and lonely, and from there, from inside, the bottom seems even deeper than it really is.” And you also watch as the musical phrases of the second theme spill into the first and vice versa, by virtue of which a novel materializes before you: one not about fear on the one hand and forgottenness on the other, but a novel about the fear of forgottenness.
Will Viacheslav Lypynsky rise up from this bottom of forgottenness? As a character, he has already risen. As a thinker whose ideas have a potential to influence Ukrainian political life, it’s unlikely. And Tanja Maljartschuk—is she herself menaced by forgottenness? Even without the BBC Book of the Year Award it didn’t menace her, and now—all the more so. So if you’re listening, Tanja, don’t be afraid. Your fellow émigré Milan Kundera, referenced not fortuitously, initially found himself in a situation much riskier than yours, yet nonetheless didn’t perish. And you too won’t perish.