Taras Prokhasko: НепрОсті (The Unsimple)
This is one of those novels, hailed as magic realism but is just as much postmodern. If it had been written by a Latin American it would undoubtedly be better known in the English-speaking world. Indeed, some critics have called it the Ukrainian Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). It is not but I can see what they mean.
It is set in the Carpathians among the Hutsul people. Taras Prokhasko worked at the Ivano-Frankivsk Institute of Karpathian Forestry, (he was a botanist by profession) and this is very much a factor in his work, as nature and botany are key to this book. Ivano-Frankivsk has been a key literary centre.
The book is set in the fictitious Carpathian town of Ialivets. The town had been created by Franzysk, usually known as Franz, in 1888. Franz was an artist though his life changed somewhat when he was first shown a camera. Within five years Ialivets would become the most magical resort in all of Central Europe, and quite fashionable.Later in 1913, Franzysk met Sebastian on a cliff-top beyond Ialivets. Sebastian was on his way home from Africa, and was shooting birds. Sebastian was twenty at the time and decided to stay.
Meanwhile Franz had met Anna and they had a child, called Stefania. Anna died in a duel with her husband, Franz, and he immediately renamed Stefania Anna. He brought her up alone till Sebastian arrived. Franz realised then that from now on, she would either submit to Sebastian, or to no-one at all. She married Sebastian but when World War I broke out, she volunteered for the army and was sent to the front. Franz and Sebastian stayed in Ialivets. The day after Franz was beheaded (yes, casually mentioned with no details till much later) a courier brings Sebastian a child. Anna had presumably died (again, no details till much later). Sebastian called her Anna, of course. He brought up Anna by himself and when she was eighteen she chose the man she wished to marry – her father. She died in childbirth and Sebastian’s daughter/granddaughter was, of course, named Anna.
This is a very basic summary of the plot but is difficult to piece together as it is not told in chronological order and, as you can see, details are often not forthcoming. Chronology did not interest them, and for Sebastian it had never even existed.
The UnSimple – who are they? The UnSimple are earthly gods. people, who with the help of inborn or acquired knowledge, are able to do good or harm to others. that point is important—inborn or acquired. They come and go. They arrive in 1914 and will eventually disappear all together in 1951. We and the townspeople do not know why. The last Anna is one because of her ability to understand animals, to become like them, and to live with this or the other type of animal without arousing in them an uneasy sense of otherness. Her grandmother had been appointed town architect by the UnSimple when she was still a child.
Apart from the UnSimple and the story of Anna(s) and the men in her/their life, the key feature is the connection to the land,, the natural environment, the myths and legends and the customs of the area. However, this is not a straightforward love-of-the-land novel. Franz and Sebastian fall in love with the area when they visit, in a fairly conventional way – the beauty of the forests and the mountain. They looked around them and saw that they were surrounded by beauty.
However, there is something else. Franz contemplated reduction. He observed how the immensity of human life, , that infinity of infinite seconds, could be reduced to a few words, the kind which, for example, can be found written about a person in an encyclopaedia. he knows little of his antecedents and nor do the Annas. But Franz observed animals and drew their habits and taught Sebastian and Anna what he had learned. Indeed, there seems to be more than an ordinary connection between them and he animals but also the plants. It struck Franz that he was in some ways similar to a fungus, interwoven into the fabric of a tree, or to spiders, whose digestion takes place in the body of their prey, or to a mollusc with an external skeleton.
He could look at a plot of land and read it, which means he knew what fauna and flora had settled there. The source of all beauty that can be in the power of human beings, of all aesthetics, are, undoubtedly, plants. He has a particular closeness to dogs, of which he has several. After all, it was they who were the real intelligentsia in Ialivets.
Franz makes animated films and a cinema is built to show them. All of his films lasted only a few minutes. He invented animation that was not yet possible. Again details not forthcoming.
Death and killing, however, are key. Two world wars take place during the course of the book. Back in autumn 1914 the Ialivtsians decided that this war was not for them. They were Central Europe, and could not have any larger interests. But when the South is fighting against the North, and the East against the West, they fight mainly in Central Europe, where the Carpathians and their rivers are. In World War I, they blow up the bridge and plant fast-growing bushes to hide the town from outsiders. In World War II, Sebastian and Anna are forced to flee. Sebastian and Anna (two of them) kill people. Several killers pass through the town and kill and are killed. As we have seen Franz is beheaded. In short, violent death and war are very much part of this boo., as, no doubt. they are in real life in Central Europe.
But the key to the book as with any good novel is story-telling. There is no life without narrative. because narrative is life. plots do not end, said Franzysk. Plots hide and emerge. Life is a narrative and it is the UnSimple that often determine what that narrative is.
This is really a very imaginative book. Prokhasko, like Franz, aims for reduction. There are few lush descriptions. Even the beauty of the Carpathian area is described fairly succinctly. But, of course, that is the point. This novel is very much post-modernist and makes its point the post-modernist way.
First published in 2002 by Lileya-NV
First published in English in 2007 by Ukrainian Literature
Translated by Uilleam Blacker