by Oleksandr Boichenko
Translated from the Ukrainian by Dmytro Kyyan
The new metaphors of an old festival
Well okay, it is not really an old one, but a long-standing one. In this sense, it is oriented towards the deep-rooted traditions of multicultural Bukovina in general, and of multi-literary Chernivtsi, in particular. Around eight years have passed since its debut, and the country has changed, the era has changed but Meridian Czernowitz – here it is, unchanged, in the same city, at the same time. And in the same, unchanging way is the solemn opening in the most beautiful hall of the most beautiful university in Ukraine, with readings of poems in synagogues and churches, markets and cemeteries, on the street of Olha Kobylianska and in the courtyard of Paul Celan. And also, the constant mentions of dead poets and the effort to create maximum comfort for the living ones. But in the first place, I repeat that it is about addressing the past and therefore, the European past of Chernivtsi. In the country of a constantly fierce, although predominantly contrived ideological struggle, Meridian professes the ideology of tolerance. In the country where Russian still remains the language of interethnic communication, Meridian speaks a dozen languages. In the country filled up to the brim with vodka, Meridian promotes a culture of wine consumption. In the country built on the principles of "forgot," "was late," "if only I had known " and "things will work out somehow," Meridian demonstrates a logistical flawlessness that can surprise even German journalists. Yes indeed, Meridian Czernowitz is an export product. That’s why every year, it attracts so many foreign visitors and often causes complaints from the local public. Complaints are completely meaningless. Not because they are unjust, but because the people who organize this festival are aware of why they are doing it exactly this way.
And yet, despite the traditional "fixation" on a European past, this year, Meridian Czernowitz has voiced at least two metaphors that are aimed at the future and important for Ukraine - for the whole of Ukraine, regardless of how each of us understands the word "whole". These metaphors, as all good metaphors should be, are ambiguous and are not reduced to the only correct rational interpretation. And this is actually what makes them good - they allow the possibility of contradictory interpretations.
So, the first metaphor is a boarding school (Internat in Ukrainian). While being presented in Chernivtsi, Serhiy Zhadan’s new novel had already received a variety of reviews, including some that were not too positive. As for me, I liked the novel. The fact that its plot is clearly imbued with Campbell's Monomyth structure, a template used a thousand times before in literature, only adds power to the novel. After all, I can’t remember a single good novel published in the last hundred years that, one way or another, wasn't based on myth. The most effective way of streamlining the fast-changing reality that expands more and more chaotically under the writer's hands hasn’t been invented yet. However, let's return to the metaphor. The boarding school – what is this? One of the two main protagonists of the novel – Pasha – is leaving home to pick up the second protagonist – his nephew Sasha – from a boarding school that happens to be located in the occupied territory. Does this mean that the boarding school should be construed as a part of Donbas that is lost today? And the people from this part should leave it for home, that is, unoccupied Ukraine? In this case, their real home will remain there and it will be not the way home from the boarding school, but vice versa. Or maybe, considering "no mercy for anyone", the phrase most-often repeated in the novel in conjunction with the "boarding school" behavior of people on both sides of the separation line, the boarding school – it is the whole Donbas in general that now has what it deserved? Meanwhile, the author himself explains that this metaphor is even wider because all of us, in all regions, are from the boarding school to some extent and for many years, we have been treating our country as a boarding school. It's true. But if the boarding school is the whole of Ukraine, then how should one explain an escape from it? As if it were an escape from Ukraine? And if we assume that this escape is not final and that we are still expected to return, then where? Back to the boarding school? What for? Attempting to turn this boarding school into a native home? Did anyone succeed in doing this? The novel, of course, doesn’t answer all these questions, but it prompts us to think carefully about them, and this is already a lot.
The second metaphor is amputation. This is exactly the title of a documentary film presented at the festival by Ihor Pomerantsev and Lidia Starodubtseva. The heroes of this film are Ukrainian soldiers who lost their limbs in the war: some lost a hand, some lost a leg, and some lost both. They are amputees. They are literally the heroes: people who managed courageously – and often with humor – to accept their tragedies and now, they are returning to a full life. Their stories are moving, their fates will make not one of us get embarrassed at recalling all that nonsense we have been concerned about during the last few years. It is a pity only that "Amputation" will not be shown in Russia for a long time. It is a pity that for a long time, the audience there will not hear Ihor Pomerantsev's poems that were read in the film, written as a bitter-ironic continuation of the famous Russian lines on a given topic. For example:
Where will a soldier go now?
Where to limp, to waddle, to amble?
Were you killed near Rzhev?
And I am alive.
My leg was torn away near Schastye…
I wasn’t killed by Germans near Rzhev.
Thank you Germans.
We know what lies on the scales now:
thousands of left and right arms and legs, groaning human stumps
in hospital hallways…
Thank you Germans: you brought something.
And many others. But again, let's return to the metaphor. The authors of the film draw a direct parallel between the amputated parts of the human body and the amputated parts of the body of Ukraine. At first, the metaphor is striking for its painfully material obviousness. Then, it raises serious doubts: is it really what it was meant to be? After all, amputation is carried out by doctors who cut off what cannot be saved for the sake of saving the rest of the body. Would this mean that Russia acted as our physician? The point is that amputation is something that is irreversible. What’s cut off doesn’t grow back on the body. The lost limbs can only be replaced by artificially made prosthetics. Is this what the film's end-to-end metaphor hints at? I don’t know. But I know that – as is the case with the boarding school – there is something to think about.
- The line Where will a soldier go now? is he third line of the poem “The enemy burnt my native hut” or “Enemies burnt a native hut” (1945) written by Mikhail Isakovsky (1900-1973).
Were you killed near Rzhev? is a re-phrasing of “I was killed near Rzhev” (1942), the first line of a poem written by Aleksandr Tvardovsky (1910-1971).
“We know what trembles on the scales” is a re-phrasing of “We know what is now on History’s scales,” the first line of a poem “Courage” (23 February, 1942) written by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).