Mykhailo Kotsyubynsky: Тіні забутих предків (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors)
Tjhis is not really a novel, more like a novella. However, it is one of the classics of modern Ukrainian literature and essential reading. Indeed, it is also essential viewing as the film of the book is also a classic.
The plot is the basic Romeo and Juliet story. Two young (very young) people fall in love, despite the fact that their families have a long-standing feud. Like all good feuds – Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and the McCoys – no-one can recall the origin of the feud, only that it continues indefinitely.
Our hero (Romeo) is Ivan. He was the nineteenth of twenty children. By the time he was a young adult, only five children were left. One was killed in a forest accident and one in the feud. We do not know the cause of death of the others but presumably illness of some sort. Ivan was an odd child. He wept constantly and was often ill. He would stare earnestly into the distance for no obvious reason and scream out loud, again for no obvious reason. His mother thought he was a changeling and some devil had swapped him for her real son. She screams at him to go off into the woods, which he frequently does where all is sad and still. He knew about birds and plants, knew that evil forces ruled the world.
Out in the wood he plays his flute and is wary of the evil spirits. He climbs high in the mountains where he sees the Vanisher, with his pointed beard twisted, his horns bent down and his eyes shut playing on a floiara, a type of flute. He flees but, later, after practice, recreates the tune on his flute.
After a fair when all the people are milling around, there is a fight between Ivan’s father and a man from the Hutenuiks, the rival family. while the adults are fighting, Ivan strikes a girl from the Hutenuiks. She runs off but he pursues her. However, when he catches her up, instead of fighting, they become friends. Marichka is, of course, the Juliet character. Despite the fact that his father dies as a result of the fight, Ivan remains close to Maricha and they continue to meet secretly over the years.
The death of Ivan’s father means that the family falls on hard times and Ivan has to hire himself out as a shepherd. This means spending the summer in the uplands tending the sheep, away from his family and from Marichka. When he returns, he he learns that Marichka had died the day before. He is devastated and runs away, staying away six years and then returning, lean and gaunt and looking much older.
He gradually recovers and even marries Palahna. Initially it goes well as Ivan works hard so much so that he neglects his wife, who wants a child. She resorts to magic and runs naked in the fields at dawn as part of her ritual. She is seen by Yura, the local sorcerer, who can stop storms with his magic. Initially she repulses him but soon is attracted to him. It can only end badly.
It is an excellent story but very much enhanced by Kotsyubynsky’s poetical story-telling. We get superb descriptions of the surroundings and of the local people, their culture and customs but also of the strange forces at works – magic, sorcerers, evil spirits, nymphs and other pagan entities, even though the people are nominally Christian and follow Christian ritual.
Ther are are a few versions of the book but the one I read, published by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and translated by Bohdan Rubchak contains copious, very helpful end-notes and a long essay on the author and his book.
A word about the the film. I first saw the film many years ago but rewatched it after reading this book. The film was very much acclaimed and deservedly so. It sticks relatively close to the book but, like the book, its strength is its evocation of the natural environment, the people, their customs and culture and, of course, the various spirits at work.
First published in1912 by Literary and Scientific Bulletin, Lviv
First published in English in 1940 by Svoboda Ukrainian Daily
Translated by Jacob Guralsky; later editions by Bohdan Rubchak