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Maria Matios: Солодка Даруся (Sweet Darusya)

Andrey Kurkov said this was one of the finest Ukrainian novels to be published since independence in 1991, high praise indeed. A couple of weeks ago I had not heard of the Hutsuls, a Ukrainian indigenous people. This is now the third book featuring them that I have read since then. Maria Matios grew up among them so knows them well.

The book is told in reverse chronological order starting during the 1960s under Soviet rule and moving back. Its is set in the village of Cheremoshne. There are two villages of that name, on either side of the Cheremosh River. At the start of the book they are both unde Soviet control but have been in different countries, specifically Poland (on one side) and Romania (on the other). That will be an issue later in the book.

The book starts, of course, with the eponymous Sweet Daryusa. Daryusa is called sweet but it is a euphemism. As far as the locals are concerned she is simple. She lives on her own (her parents are both dead and she barely fends for herself, though she is helped by her neighbour , Maria. She is apparently mute though we learn that, in fact, she is not. She will speak to two people during the course of the book. She’s better off talking to chickens than to people. The trees understand her, dogs don’t bother her, but people — no. People can’t leave Darusya alone.

Moreover she does not consider herself foolish as some suggest : How can she be foolish when she understands everything, she knows what everything is called, what today’s date is, how many apple trees have borne fruit in Maria’s garden, how many people have been born in the village from one Christmas to another, and how many have died?! During the course of the book she will point out how foolish certain other people are.

Apart from the perception of her, she has one big problem. She will often experience intense pain. This can be brought on by eating sweets or even hearing them mentioned but it seem to occur at other times. The only cure seem for her to bathe herself in the river, regardless of the weather and temperature, though she has a problem when it freezes.

One of the main features of her life is visiting her father. She takes him food and other items and walks solemnly up the hill to his house, with her basket of food, followed by a pack of dogs. The dogs may be be after the food but they also act as her protector. Her father is, of course, long since dead but he is one of the two people to whom she talks. She worries someone may see her talking to father but no-one does, only the dogs. People themselves have taught her not to speak. So let them tolerate her muteness. Doesn’t she tolerate their idiocy?

And then there is Ivan Tsvychok. Tsvychok is not his real name but a nickname based on the Ukrainian for nails as he collects nails to make drymbas, the Ukrainian version of the Jew’s harp. Ivan wanders everywhere, sleeping where he can, making, playing and selling his drymbas. Every so often he takes up with a woman but it does not last long and He is soon on the move again. he also does odd jobs, though it is difficult to get him to commit to a time. One day Maria has managed to get him to chop wood. He sees Daryusa and suddenly goes to help Daryusa, abandoning Maria. he moves in with her but not sleeping in her bed but in the shed. He helps her, takes her on his travels and is generally very caring. However, when the Soviet authorities intervene, things go wrong.

We jump back in time to Mykhailo and Matronka. Mykhailo was orphaned at a young age but had worked hard and eventually married Matronka. They seemed to adore each other and kept themselves to themselves . They have a child to everyone’s surprise as Matronka had shown no signs of being pregnant. The child, of course, is Daryusa. However, one day while Mykhailo is away working, Matronka disappears. We are now in the late 1930s and this is not a good time to be in that part of the world. The Romanians are nasty, particularly if you do not speak Romanian to them and if you are a young man as you have to fight for them. The Germans seemed to be not too bad unless, of course, you are Jewish. The Russians, however, are particularity vicious. Oh, what bad stuff those Russkies have caused among the people, God forbid!

One interesting feature of this book is what we might call the Greek chorus. Each section has two women discussing events of the village. You see, this house from the very beginning was cursed, and those who lived in it remained cursed, they say of Matronka/Mykhailo/Daryusa. Matronka’s disappearance, what happens to Mykhailko and why Daryusa stops talking are all explained.

I am not competent to judge if this was one of he best post-independence Ukrainian novels but it is certainly a very fine one. Matios is a first-class story-teller.,cleverly leaving the key plot element to the end of the book but the early part of the chronology. She gives us a detailed portrait of the people of the region and the sufferings they endured from their various occupiers. As we find in many Ukrainian novels, the Russians are generally nasty and vicious.

Publishing history

First published in 2004 by Pyramid,
First published in English in 2019 by Spuyten Duyvil
Translated by Olha Tytarenko and Michael M. Naydan