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Eugenia Kononenko: Російський сюжет (A Russian Story)

This is an interesting title because, though Russia and Russians very much come into it, it is much more about Ukraine, Ukrainians and Ukrainianness (yes, I seem to have just invented that word but it is used in the book), though it is also about Russian influence on Ukraine.The title has a secondary meaning in that it refers to a very specific Russian story, namely Eugene Onegin.

Our hero is Eugene (Zhenia) Samarsky. He is named Eugene after Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s poem is a key text in this book and will influence Eugene more than just with his name. He does not like the name Zhenia, the standard abbreviated form of Eugene, not least because it can be a girl’s name as well as a boy’s name.

Eugene, like a lot of Ukrainians, had essentially been brought up speaking Russian. However, in his last year at university, he went to a party where everyone was speaking Ukrainian and he fell in love with his own language. After that night, Ukrainian became the language of love for him. He met a girl at the party and though they never became an item, both shared happy memories of the night.

Ukrainian became a language of communication for him, practically for the first time ever, rather than the language of the classroom, of theatrical performances or of poetry, and that was brilliant.. He listened to it on the street and wherever he went. He spotted the differnt kinds of Ukrainian – the language of the ordinary people, with the standard mistakes, those that mixed Russian words in their Ukrainian and even the language of the country girls who had not been subjected to any Russian influence.

His parents were a problem. His mother taught Russian and adored Russian literature. I am a Ukrainian who likes Russian literature! The whole world likes Russian literature, of course, to which her husband retorted You’re exaggerating! They aren’t particularly fond of it even in Russia these days.

After independence, people struggled to earn a living as we have seen in other Ukrainian novels though Eugene did manage to get by. He had applied for grants/scholarships abroad, particularly in the US. He also had two girlfriends- Lada and Halya (who knew one another) and he was planning on moving in with one of them, though had discussed the possibility with both of them (separately). However the women, perhaps not surprisingly, had a fight and Halya eventually moved off to the US. Then Lada got pregnant and was furious and blamed him, with a certain amount of justification. When the child was born and she got more aggressive, Eugene planned on returning to his parents who really did not want him back. Howver, Lada found a Frenchman, Thierry, and Eugene did move back to his parents.

It was his uncle who saved him. He was known to everyone as the General (though he had only been a colonel) and lived in a large house in a remote village. He offered Eugene the possibility of coming to live with him and to look after him and Eugene would inherit his house and money. Eugene accepts and finds there is not much looking after as the village women descend on the house daily with food, drink and goodwill. When the General dies, he takes over. One day he meets two sisters called Olga and Tatiana (named after the sisters in Eugene Onegin) and starts to live out the plot of the poem. Olga seems to be attrated to him, though she will claim it is love, not sex but he seems to prefer Tatiana,not least because she has bigger breasts. Given that they are just turning sixteen, he is somewhat cautious.

As in all good novels, things go wrong and he is heading off to the United States where he works as an interpreter and administrator and meets and marries Dounia, an Irish-American woman, We met her early on where we get another language issue. The five of them – Eugene and Dounia, Lada and Thierry and Lada and Eugene’s son Myroslav have a picnic together. There is not a single language all are happy with. Only Myroslav speaks all four languages that come into play – English, French, Russian and Ukrainian and Kononenko shows the complications involved.

Dounia teaches Russian literature (as does the mother of Olga and Tatiana – Russian stories certainly play a role in this book) and when she hears about Eugene’s adventures with Olga and Tatiana she comments What a Russian Story! It’s straight out of Dostoevsky!” After all, the way the Russian story developed in a Ukrainian village was more reminiscent of Dostoevsky than of Pushkin

While Russian stories are key, the issue of Ukrainian stories is also raised when Eugene is interpreting late in the book. A Ukrainian speaker comments Small nations also have figures like Hemingway. But the world is unfamiliar with them. This is not because there are no translators or literary agents to make Eastern European Hemingways visible to the world. Rather it is because the American Hemingway is enough for the entire world. I am not sure I entirely agree with that statement but it certainly has some validity.

I though this was a really fine book, telling not only a good (Ukrainian) story but dealing with two important issues, the first being the role of language in a country where more than one language is commonly used and the related issue of how do you switch your language when you stay in the same country but your country moves politically and culturally. The second issue is the national literature of a small country, which is little known beyond its borders and tends to be dominated by the literature of another country, specifically a former colonial overlord. This is, of course, an issue in many former colonial countries where, for example, English or French literature dominates the local literature though, of course, Latin America has, to a great extent, dealt with this concern.

The situation in Ukraine has changed since this book was written, as one of the side effects of Putin’s illegal war is to put more focus on Ukrainian arts – literature, art and music – both at home and abroad, so I would hope Ukrainian literature will do more to come out of the shadow of Russian literature.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Kalvariya
First published in English in 2014 by Glagoslav
Translated by Patrick Corness