Volodymyr Rafeyenko: Мондеґрін. Пісні про смерть і любов (Mondegreen : Songs about Death and Love)
Volodymyr Rafeyenko is from the Donbas region of Ukraine. This is an area where people tend to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian and Rafeyenko is no exception. All of his earlier books were written in Russian. However, when Russia annexed Crimea and war broke out in the Donbas region between the Ukrainians and the separatists, supported by Russia, Rafeyenko, like many other Ukrainians, left the area and, in his case, went to Kyiv. (For an interesting account of someone who stayed, I can heartily recommend Andrey Kurkov‘s novel Серые пчелы (Grey Bees).) This book, presumably, semi-autobiographical, tells the story of a man called Haba Habinsky who is from Donbas and has come to Kyiv as a result of the war.
The title of the book comes from the term mondegreen, which refers to a word or phrase misheard, such as from a song or poem, and turned into something else. A famous example is the line Jimi Hendrix’s Excuse me while I kiss the sky, often misheard as Excuse me, while I kiss this guy.
While the story is about Haba adapting to what to him is almost a new country, though it is his country, the story is not, on the whole realist. Rafayenko uses what the blurb for the book calls an experimental technique, though I would go further and say that he uses surrealist/absurdist/post-modernist techniques and plunges into the myths of his country. But he also uses language.
Haba has spoken Russian all his life and though he knows some Ukrainian of course, it is not his first language. He makes major efforts to learn it but, at the same time, he tells us about his struggles. Fortunately, translator Mark Andryczyk gives us copious footnotes, explaining some of the issues.
Language is, of course, key to one’s national identification and this is an issue that concerns him. And what is the Ukrainian essence, if you compare it with, say, the Russian one? Of course, the Ukrainian essence, if it is our national one, should be different from the essential essence, so to say, of the enemy? Right? Or are there certain philosophical coordinates where the national disappears and the essentially human sets out upon its difficult and senseless path? He goes further in considering this issue: While talking to himself only in his native Russian, he remained an average Joe. But when he began learning a second language, all sorts of God-knows-what began entering his brain. From much knowledge, there is much despair. However, he soon takes to Ukrainian: But the most overwhelming revelation was the Ukrainian language. It was melodious and delightful. But he still likes Russian, The junta considered itself to be a Ukrainian one, but the language that predominated in the city was Russian. Schrödinger’s famous cat paradox, in fact, dictates that Ukraine exists but you can’t see it. It’s both dead and alive, like our mother nature, or, in fact, Ukrainian statehood.
He likes Kyiv as well: Many good things awaited him here. For example, the absence of the Islamic State, of the Ebola virus and of Russian tourists. (Russian tourists is Ukrainian slang for Russian invaders). He likes the underground railway but sees it as something living: The metro-beast needs time to digest today’s impressions and the living shadows of slapdash people, their smiles and memory, and their pictures and movements, that will remain in distant and endless undergrounds for eternity.
He has arrived alone in Kyiv, aged forty-nine. No-one was expecting him. He seems to have no friends and no family. Indeed, he does not have any past family/friends, apart from references to his great-grandparents (murdered by the Bolsheviks) and various women, though admitting his love life has been more successful in his imagination than in real life. Two women are named, one, married, with whom he has a strange affair, and another whose identity is only revealed at the end.
However, though he has a Ph.D. he (he worked as a university lecturer in his pre-Kyiv life) he can only find occasional work writing for newspapers and magazines so ends up getting a job at a supermarket, as an assistant in the vegetable and sweets department. He gets on well with his boss, army veteran and Ukrainian-speaking Petsia Petrovych Petrov. Indeed, they have to join common cause against both Petro’s boss and the rodents that infest the shop. It is Petro (Haba uses many variations for the name of his boss. I shall stick to Petro) who seemingly gives him a job tutoring his niece, Ole-Luk-Oie. When he meets her he realises that she is probably around twenty-five and in the second year of her Ph. D. In short Petro has set the pair up. Is she going to be the one or, indeed, does she even exist? Indeed, perhaps she is in fact Petro’s nephew.
One of the features of this novel is Rafeyenko’s dipping into Ukrainian myths and, in particular, the Mare’s Head. The Mare’s Head, in traditional Ukrainian mythology, appears out of nowhere to put the hero to the moral principles test and it certainly does with Haba, often at inopportune moments. But, in good post-modernist fashion, we get references to myths, fairy tales, songs, literature, poetry, history, philosophy, cinema, and so on. In the latter part of the book, when he meets Ole-Luk-Oie, he moves away from conventional reality and into a strange fantasy world, waking up in the end and wondering, as do we, whether the whole thing had been a dream.
This is certainly a most original book which switches easily from straightforward realism to fantasy, post-modernism and absurdism. Haba himself is both in the real world but also in a fantasy/dream/post-modern world and he is never sure which world he is in but, as he concludes Everything will pass.
First published in 2019 by Meridian Czernowitz
First published in English in 2022 by Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature
Translated by Mark Andryczyk