Home » Ukraine » Oksana Lutsyshyna » Іван і Феба (Ivan and Phoebe)

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Іван і Феба (Ivan and Phoebe)

The novel opens in the era not long after independence and there is inevitably a certain amount of chaos. Ivan and Phoebe are about to get married. However, Phoebe has to buy her shoes not at a shoe shop but at a bookshop, the only place that has them. It seems that buying things at a seemingly inappropriate place is not uncommon. The bookshop, for example, sells very few books. While she is trying on the shoes, they are accosted by a stranger who is clearly down and out and who smells. He asks for money for a drink but then reveals he was imprisoned in the Soviet Union but released in independent Ukraine and has no idea how independent Ukraine functions. Tell me: what’s this independence we got going on now? How am I supposed to live?

We gradually learn that Ivan was involved in the Maidan Square occupation where many students went on hunger strike. Ivan had been told he was working in security so he did not go on hunger strike, though he wanted to. He will only later tell his somewhat controlling mother and she is furious, as he could have risked his life.

Lutsyshyna gives us a detailed account of how this hunger strike came about, who was involved and why and the reaction to it, both for and against. They get a visit from Leonid Kravchuk, at that time Chairman of the Supreme Council of the USSR, and future president of Ukraine, who tries to dissuade them from the strike. We are also told George H. W. Bush had come to Ukraine and made his infamous Chicken Kiev Speech in English in which he had called for keeping the Soviet Union alive and had said an independent Ukraine was not the best idea.

Ivan and his friends in Lviv had been involved in the struggle for independence for some time. There had been considerable discussion among them about the relative merits of violent and non-violent opposition. We know that Ivan had had trouble with the KGB as he refers to Sashko, his torturer. We will later (in the book but earlier in the chronology) meet Sashko as he torments Ivan, threatening his mother if Ivan does not cooperate Sashko seems to have disappeared but he had warned Ivan that others would take his place. Ivan is very paranoid and clearly very badly affected by what happened to him and imagines people are following him. Indeed, he becomes so frightened that, instead of helping his friends, he flees back home to his parents in Kyiv, where he spends the first few weeks as if asleep.

Through a friend he gets a job in a bank (head of IT) and we follow his fairly succesful career there. One day, the bank’s lawyer brings in his daughter Maria and asks Ivan if she can use the computer to type out her poems. Ivan accepts and learns that, though her real name is indeed Maria, she uses Phoebe, from the Greek god Phoebus (aka Apollo), god of poetry. They start what can best be described as a desultory affair as Ivan is still suffering from what we might call post-traumatic stress disorder. He does not behave well towards her, showing, for example jealousy towards her poetry and even destroying it.

However, both her father and his mother put pressure on them to get married. They would live with his parents and his mother would have someone to help her, even though Phoebe has a job. He would be expected t do the traditional man jobs – fixing shelves , for example – as his father is a drunk and does little. Neither are too enthusiastic about the marriage. Indeed, the book opens with Ivan considering running away till his father accidentally stabs him when they are cutting up a carcase for a barbecue, so he has to stay.

It is not a happy marriage as Phoebe is treated as something of a skivvy by her mother-in-law. Nor is she treated well by Ivan. Ivan’s previous girlfriend had had the same fear . She explains to him what feminism is (about which he seems very ignorant): It means I want to have my own life not life as an appendage to your mother.

We follow their lives against the background if what is happening in Ukraine and it is safe to say that it is not happy. Both as regards Ivan’s career and his marriage things do not work out even while Ukraine has its own issues. Ivan’s job at the bank does not work out. The writing about the bank was, in fact, on the wall: it would not last. Nothing did. We also get a gloomy summing-up of Ukraine: The former dissidents, now referred to as ‘democrats’, were being displaced by a different, never-before-seen class of moderately rotund, arrogant moguls. People got rich and went broke abruptly, with nothing in-between. The infrastructure is breaking down as are the people. The stupid parliament with its idiotic laws, the police that did not enforce even those, the stupid taxes, the stupid gangsters in their little leather jackets, and the stupid oligarchs …

This is something of a straggly novel as it is not always clear where it is going but nevertheless it gives a fine portrait of the early days of independent Ukraine, both the general background from the very early days to a few years later, as well as showing it through the eyes of Ivan, who really struggles to cope with a life less structured, his own paranoia, his inability to make and keep friendships, including romantic ones and his general disconnectedness from his environment.

Ivan is by far the key character in this book and poor Phoebe all too often gets shunted aside both by her husband and in the narration. Clearly, women had a traditional role in Soviet Ukraine as wives and mothers and not much else. Equally clearly, they now want to have their own lives but sexism is not going to disappear overnight. Ivan has two serious romantic relationships during the course of the book and he makes a mess of both of them, not least because of his sexist view of the traditional role of women. Ivan and Phoebe have a daughter, Emilia, and it is to be hoped that her life will be better and more fulfilling that that of her mother.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Stary Lev
First published in English in 2023 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Nina Murray