#RivetingReviews: Mandy Wight reviews FORGOTTENNESS by Tanja Maljartschuk

There are two stories running parallel in this latest novel by Ukrainian writer Tanja Maljartschuk: that of Viacheslav Lypynskyi, born in 1882, an important figure in the early 20th century struggle for Ukrainian independence, and the story of the narrator herself. The latter is a young Ukrainian writer concerned with the way time consumes everything, not merely disappearing things and people, but leaving no trace of them behind. While recovering from a breakdown, she reads about Lypynskyi’s death in 1931 in an old newspaper and becomes intrigued by him, finding echoes of his life in her own. Both lives are explored in alternating chapters, with the struggle for Ukrainian statehood taking centre stage. And though there is displacement, loss and misery in both narratives, the stories are leavened by a wonderfully rich vocabulary, by some simple but striking imagery, and by that dark humour so beloved of Ukrainian writers.

Lypynskyi shows his commitment to Ukrainian statehood from an early age. His family are Polish, living in the town of Zaturtsi, north-east of Lviv, and the young Lypynskyi has been sent to university in the Polish city of Krakow. His family are horrified when he returns insisting that his first name, ‘Wacław’, be spelled the Ukrainian way, ‘Viacheslav’, and, worse still, speaking Ukrainian which ‘wasn’t even a language, just a rural dialect, a hodgepodge of Polish and Russian’ that they’d never heard ‘emerge from the lips of an educated person, only from the local poor’. This is just the beginning of Lypynskyi’s fascination with Ukrainian language, culture and history, which leads to his passionate commitment to the cause of Ukrainian independence. It wasn’t just the Polish upper classes who found this objectionable. At that time, the territory of present-day Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. They, too, were keen to quash the idea of an independent Ukraine and banned the Ukrainian language until 1905. Even then there was censorship, and in 1907 Lypynskyi was banished for publishing a collection of poetry by the great Ukrainian poet Shevchenko. 

On the face of it, the narrator says, there are only three things that link her to Lypynskyi: the fact that she visited his home in Zaturtsi; the fact that he spent time in her home town at the end of the First World War as an envoy of the Ukrainian state; and the fact that they share the same birthday of 17 April. But there are echoes that reverberate across the two lives in more subtle and diffuse ways, sometimes just by the repetition of a word or phrase. There are also resonances in their love lives. Both meet their future lovers in university lecture halls. Lypynskyi, by now a lecturer, becomes transfixed by a tall, dark-blonde student named Kaziemiera – so completely that he is left rooted to the spot, until the caretaker asks him to move aside ‘in order to sweep up his dignity, splattered against the wooden floor’. The narrator’s first lover is her lecturer too – the first of three, all oddly resembling one another with their golden hair and blue eyes. 

It’s only well into the book that we learn about the narrator’s family, and are given a glimpse of life in Ukraine post-1931, the year Lypynskyi died. There’s Grandma Sonia, left on the steps of an orphanage by her father, who’d told her that he was going to fetch some plum-butter pampushky. He never returned, dying of starvation in the gatehouse of a factory complex. This was 1932 and the start of ‘Stalin’s man-made famine, the Holodomor’. Then there’s Grandpa Bomchyk, who grew to be enormous, weighing 150 kilos when he died. This wasn’t just because he came from a generation that didn’t exercise, but because his body was a ‘receptacle for the accumulation of unutilized laughter’. After toiling on the fields all his life, he owned nothing, having handed over his land and livestock to the collective farm after the Second World War. ‘As the reasons for laughter grew fewer and fewer, his body began to increase in size,’ we’re told. ‘It simply swelled from a surplus of giggles that had yet to come out.’  

Towards the end of the book the historical events come thick and fast, but the writer does an excellent job of outlining the fall of both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and the complex situation in Kyiv, poised for the realisation of Ukrainian independence. Lypynskyi is watching this from Vienna, where he’s dispatched in 1918 as the ambassador of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic. There’s a powerful account of Vienna at the end of the First World War, the sombre mood there matched only by Lypynskyi’s devastation at the eventual failure of Ukrainian independence.

This is a compelling account of a fascinating historical figure, but the narrator’s story is moving too. Her courage in revisiting her own family stories, the show of strength in her visit to the remains of the Lypynskyi’s family estate, is a kind of coming to terms with her own family history as well as that of her country. The discovery that Lypynskyi’s grave was ploughed over by a random tractor driver in Soviet times, his bones dispersed, is bleak indeed. Yet Lypynskyi hasn’t disappeared without a trace: in this powerful and moving tribute, Tanja Maljartschuk has held him back from the jaws of that gigantic blue whale, Time, and preserved him from Forgottenness.

Reviewed by Mandy Wight

FORGOTTENNESS

Written by Tanja Maljartschuk 

Translated by Zenia Tompkins

Published by Bullaun Press (2024)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Mandy Wight has published several translations from German on the No-Mans-Land Website, including excerpts from novels by Ursula Krechel, Nina Jäckle, Ulrike Edschmid, Natascha Wodin and Monika Helfer. In 2018 she was awarded the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation for her translation of an extract from Juli Zeh’s novel Unterleuten. She writes on books in English and in translation at her blog Peakreads.

Read Mandy Wight’s #‎RivetingReview of UN AMOR by Sara Mesa

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Read Mandy Wight’s #‎RivetingReview of KAIROS by Jenny Erpenbeck

Category: June 2024Reviews

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