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Tanja Maljartschuk: Біографія випадкового чуда (A Biography of a Chance Miracle)

There is a sub-genre of contemporary East European literature which consists of the author/protagonist lambasting his/her home country, which has clearly gone to the dogs. A good example of this is Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov‘s Все там будем (The Good Life Elsewhere). This book is another one. Lorchenkov uses satire and black humour to the maximum, damning present-day Moldova. Maljartschuk takes a somewhat different approach, cynical, highly critical of Ukraine, its government and its people. She certainly uses humour but not the outright black humour of Lorchenkov.

Our heroine is Lena, whom we first meet as a child. Lena is a Russian name (the Ukrainian equivalent is Olenka). This is an issue, as Ukrainian nationalism (which means, in most cases, opposition to and, indeed, hatred of Russia) is to the fore. One teacher at Lena’s school, for example, almost loses her job as she prefers to teach in (bad) Russian rather than Ukrainian and, indeed, is only saved from being fired when she is killed by ball lightning. However, despite the headmistress’s attempt to call Lena Olenka, Lena adamantly sticks to the name Lena.

Lena is from San Francisco. No, not that San Francisco but a small town in Ukraine named in memory of those who left for the United States in the early twentieth century in search of the land of their dreams. The death of the Russian-speaking teacher had a profound effect on her (she witnessed it) and she was moved to another school. Her only friend there was Ivanka, whom Lena nicknamed Dog and whom she described as miserable and unwanted by anyone but me.

Much of the book is about a succession of characters who either behave badly or who suffer, as well as about a series of events which shows what a mess Ukraine and San Francisco are in. We also follows Lena’s life story, which tends to illustrate the nature of these people and events.

Ivanka, for example, gets married when she is only fifteen, to a man twenty years older than her. He is very abusive, all in the name of God. Eventually, she is rescued from him. Lena, herself has had a complicated relationship with God, believing in him as a child, under the influence of her very religious grandmother, but realising, when she was older, that this was no longer necessary in her life.

Economically, the country goes from bad to worse. Before you could buy all of three products in the grocery stores, underwear was cotton, and there were savings books into which you set aside money in order to buy a car in ten years when it was your turn. However, in this new era, there were no groceries, no underwear, no cars. Everyone walked around broken and tattered. The new era wasn’t promising anything good, just kids that wanted to eat and kids that had nothing to wear.

The new mantra was business but the definition of the word was not as elsewhere. It now meant: If you couldn’t steal from the state, then you had to steal from one another. Everyone was missing a conscience, or so it seemed to Lena.

Of course, some try to leave the country. Lena’s father, with forged documents, applies for a US visa but is rejected. His friend who had come along with him to Kiev merely to keep him company, is accepted. Lena’s father does not do well. His aluminium factory closed and he worked as a loader but that did not work out. He tries to do something no-one else seems to be doing : grow a crop. He chooses buckwheat but, of course, makes a complete mess of that.

Lena herself wants to go to university and she applies for various faculties without success. Only later does she learn that to get into a Ukrainian university, you have to bribe the admissions officer. (She will eventually learn that you can only get the free services available to citizens in Ukraine by making a suitable bribe.) She can only raise enough money to get into physical education, which she hates.

But Lena is not like other Ukrainians. Lena never hid anything. She was exactly the person that she seemed to be. Exactly the same as people thought her to be. More importantly, she also has a conscience, which as she noted above, was a rare thing in Ukraine. The rest of the book shows Lena using her conscience to help those who need helping: domestic animals mistreated, wild animals hunted to extinction and handicapped humans.

Lena tries her best to help and, inevitably, comes up against corruption, brutality, indifference, Ukraine’s unjust (in her eyes) laws and the fact that most people just do not care. As the title tells us, miracles can happen, though not often and not how we might expect.

There is no doubt that, for me, it is this second part of the book that makes this book so worthwhile. Lena’s struggles against the system are very well told, not least because Lena stands up to the system but does not always succeed and does not always behave in an exemplary manner. The background to the whole novel – the corruption, greed, incompetence, indifference, bureaucracy, brutality – all the faults that Maljartschuk sees in contemporary Ukraine – help illustrate and justify Lena’s stance.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Klub Simeĭnoho Dozvilli︠a︡
First published in English 2018 by Cadmus
Translated by Zenia Tompkins