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Andriy Lyubka: Карбід (Carbide)

The book opens in Vedmediv, a fictitious Ukrainian town. The name means honey eater, i.e. bear in Ukrainian, so called when mighty hordes of the Bear Empire swept westward. The people were too lazy to change it when the Bear Empire broke up. Our hero isMykhailo ‘Tys’ Chvak. Tys comes from the name of the river in Vedmediv. However, his students know him as Carbide as he farts during lectures and his farts smell of calcium carbide. Unlike most people in the town, his wife included, he is a go-getter and a leader, at least in his own opinion. Like many people in the town he is an alcoholic.

Tys is a history teacher and therefore very interested in Ukrainian history. He feels it is his duty to visit the local taverns and lecture the locals on the glories of Ukrainian history. However, he neglects his wife – they have not had sex for over a year – and neglects basic household responsibilities.

One day, while walking home from a tavern he falls in a sewer. Once recovered, it gives him a brilliant idea. He rushes over to his friend Icarus (real name Istvan – like several people in the town he is of Hungarian origin, with the border only a short distance away). Icarus was not very bright at school but Tys helped him with his homework. He became a car mechanic and soon learned how to extend the fuel tank of a car to carry diesel (illegally) to Hungary where he got a much better price. He did well and bought his own fleet of cars. He has since developed his smuggling activities by river and even by plane (a disaster which led to his nickname). After serving time in prison he got elected as a regional government deputy (a criminal record was no impediment to political advancement).

Tys tells him his brilliant idea and Icarus tells him they need to get the help of Mirca, the major people smuggler in the area and Ychi the grave digger. We have not been told what the scheme is but we soon learn that the plan is to dig a tunnel from Vedmediv to Hungary. Tys wants to go further. As Ukraine has not been admitted into the European Union, his idea is that all Ukrainians would go through the tunnel into the European Union, thereby euro integrating.

We follow the adventures of our heroes in building the tunnel, including eliciting the help of the corrupt mayor Zoltan Bartok (he decided to chart his own course. It all started like everything else in newly independent Ukraine with common theft ).

Inevitably things go wrong, not least because digging a tunnel is not just digging a horizontal hole but requires much more. However 0ur intrepid corrupt heroes find a way.

Tys is an idealist and sees this as his, yes, his great project to unite Ukraine with the rest of Europe. The others, however, see it merely as a way to aid their various smuggling businesses, with the local coroner, Krupka, aka The Succubus leading the way in her body part smuggling business. As a result they are not entirely happy about Tys’ idealism.

You are meant to have noticed that the title of the book and our hero is a reference to Candide. No, I would not have, either, were it not for the fact that on the front cover of the book it states The much anticipated response to Voltaire’s Candide. If you missed that, Tys, later in the book, engages in a discussion of Candide. Tys is, of course, meant to be a modern-day Candide, totally optimistic till real life hits him. However, for Tys, Candide has links to the Transcarpathia region, not least because Candide is in love with Cunegonde who works for Ferenc Rakoczi, who was born in nearby Slovakia. Tys also claims the composer Béla Bartók who was Hungarian, was born in what is now Romania but lived some time in what is now Ukraine.

While this book has the general line that Russia and the Russians are bad, the Ukrainians do not come out of it well. Apart from Tys and his wife, all the major characters and many of the minor ones are corrupt, greedy and dishonest. This is not only the private citizens but also government officials, the police and the border guards on both sides of the border.

This is certainly a funny book as Lyubka makes fun of everyone, from Tys’ drunkenness and naive idealism to the rampant and highly imaginative corruption. Indeed if the Ukrainians in this book had put their efforts towards creating a corrupt-free country with the same vigour and creativity they use to organise massive corruption, Ukraine would be a shining light to us all.

Publishing history

First published in 2015 by Kalvariya
First published in English in 2020 by Jantar
Translated byReilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler