A sort of magic realism
A review of Yupak. By: Serhiy Serhiyovych Saigon. Publisher: Bilka, Kyiv, 2020
In December 2020, a jury of distinguished journalists and literary critics designated Yupak by Serhii Serhiyovych Saigon as the Ukrainian fiction book of the year. The BBC Book of the Year prize has been awarded in Ukraine since 2005 and is regarded by many as the literary award in the country. As a result, Saigon now belongs to a circle of distinguished Ukrainian writers, a status he achieved just years after he published (under his pen name) diaries from the frontline in Donbas. When awarded with the prize at the official ceremony, Saigon first remarked: “I haven’t prepared anything.”
As exhibited on the book cover, “Yupak is a novel about the Ukrainian countryside – its traditions, dialects, ways of doing things, customs and all its faults.” The novel’s title is a reference to the motorcycle brand, Yupiter, which was scarce during Soviet times. Due to a lack of supply, motorcycles turned into desirable goods, especially for rural folks in Ukraine. For them, a motorcycle with a sidecar was a prized vehicle, synonymous with the ability to travel across difficult village roads. Goods could also be loaded into the side car.
Yupak’s storyline begins during the last years of the Soviet Union. A man from a village in Southern Ukraine manages to get a motorcycle, for which his family and the motorcycle are cursed by an envious woman. As a result of the curse, the motorcycle would spend long years in the shed and reappear only in the early 2000s. It will go on to change owners and bring tragedies and havoc to those who were in its possession. The deadly curse would be destroyed by an old witch, however at a cost for its last owner. In the meantime, the Yupak’s numerous owners give the reader an insight into a plethora of village characters, their stories, troubles and hopes.
A refreshing revival
The secret to the novel’s success can be explained by a few things. First, its plot refers to a segment of Ukrainian society mostly overlooked by other Ukrainian authors. These are the present day rural dwellers. Saigon makes a somewhat unexpected return to the classic subject of Ukrainian literature. Namely, the 19th century where the classical canon of Ukrainian prose is heavily loaded with novels dedicated to Ukrainian peasants. These works have long become the nemesis of high school students who are obliged to read them for their matriculation exams. The return of rural life as a subject of modern fiction breaks the spell of rural themes being anachronistic and somewhat irrelevant to the modern reader.
As in most of Europe today, Ukrainian writers prefer to focus on the life of modern urbanites. However, while many Ukrainians live in large urban areas and the rural population is declining rapidly, most city dwellers have close or extended family members living in the countryside. In this way, a book that portrays rural youth is both exotic and close to many Ukrainian readers.
The second factor that explains the book’s success is the vividness of story details. Although Saigon openly states that events presented in the novel are fictional, it is clear that they were inspired by his life experiences. Thus, we can say that the “fictional” parts are the parts that are down to the author’s storytelling talents. That is to say, many of the details are clearly told by someone who has experienced them in one form or another. They are realistic and accurately reflect Ukraine’s lesser known parts. “People in my village who read the book didn’t see anything ‘special’ about it,” Saigon told BBC News Ukrainian. “I just wrote about life the way it is. This is an ordinary story of your average person from the steppes”.
Saigon was born and raised in Petrykivka, a village in the Dnipropetrovsk region mainly known as the centre of a traditional folk decorative painting style called Petrykivka painting. This style draws from a rich colour palette, utilising floral and animal motives and is said to be an epitome of romanticized Ukrainian folk traditions – pastoral and peaceful. In Yupak, however, Saigon presents modern day village life as far removed from this bucolic paradise. It is haunted by difficulties, which include the limited opportunities for young people to find employment and earn a decent living, the potential danger people face when in contact with law enforcement, not to mention limited access to culture and widespread prejudice. But the book is also about ingenuity and morals. And this is another reason for its success.
A subject for debate
Yupak is available in two language versions – Ukrainian and Russian. The two versions differ by the colour of the volume’s book cover. Both versions include huge portions of speech in surzhyk (a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, which is often used in everyday conversations). The original version of the novel was written in Russian and subsequently translated into Ukrainian by Viktoriya Nazarenko. Writing in Russian is not an obvious choice for an author raised in a Ukrainian village. Saigon himself explained in interviews that he decided to write in Russian because, as a teenager, he read books in Russian and remained under their influence.
Evidently, Saigon is not the only author in Ukraine to have books written in Russian before translating them to Ukrainian. Other Donbas war veterans published their books in two language versions – Ukrainian and Russian. An interesting case was a book titled Slidy na dorozi (Traces on the Road). It was one of the 2018 bestsellers, authored by another Donbas war veteran, Valeriy Ananiev. The book was originally written in Russian, but only published in Ukrainian. This case shows how the social use of the Ukrainian language is embodied by this newest literary wave.
The award for Yupak was not guaranteed as the BBC Ukraine Book of the Year shortlist also included books by some of Ukraine’s long established household names, such as Sofia Andrukhovych and Maria Matios. Anrukhovych’s novel, Amadoka, for example, was awarded best fiction book in 2020 by the Litaktsent book prize, while Yupak did not even make it to the shortlist. The difference in prize winners between the BBC Book of the Year and the Litaktsent reflects the difference of their jury composition.
While the Litaktsent can be called an “industry” award and its jury is composed of literary critics, the BBC Book of the Year jury is traditionally composed predominantly of journalists and public figures. The prize committee tries to engage with the public by encouraging them to write reviews for shortlisted books. The best submissions are published on the BBC Ukrainian Service website. Thus, while Amadoka explores the depths of the Ukrainian national psyche and discusses unresolved historical traumas, Yupak brings dynamism and action with elements of black magic.
Saigon, as a matter of fact, almost declared his mission is to make modern Ukrainian literature less elaborate in style and closer to the audience. In his view the overload of “psychologism” and the lack of realism is what makes Ukrainian literature so hard for readers to accept. This view, that it reflects the current state of Ukrainian literature, can be debated. The truth is that today’s Ukrainian literature offers a plethora of styles, from historical crime fiction, through light romance and drama along with novels that investigate burning societal issues.
Thus, Saigon’s comments should be treated more as a reflection of an ongoing debate in Ukraine’s literary circles. It centres on the future of the new wave of writers who write stories based on their experiences in the trenches in eastern parts of the country. One might risk saying that this kind of war literature is the result of the authors’ need to undergo some kind of “catharsis”. Some established critics, however, have started to state that works authored by Donbas veterans have become repetitive. They point to the fact that most of the books directly describe the writer’s war experiences. In addition, as for most of these authors, war memoirs are their first attempt at producing a literary work, their writing style often shows signs of being immature and naïve.
Regardless of that, the veterans have established a loyal audience. Seemingly, Ukrainians go for these war memoirs not only because of their literary style, but because of the contents they find there. Clearly they are interested in the ongoing war and Ukraine’s struggle to defend its integrity and sovereignty. Additionally, this interest in war literature can be treated as a sign of respect and appreciation to those who actively serve (or served) at the frontline.
The two worlds of traditional and new veterans’ literature, however, are not totally separated. Artem Chekh, an author who published a number of books before the war in Donbas, served on the frontline from 2015 to 2016. His war memoire, Point Zero, was published in 2017. Serhiy Zhadan, who was not in the trenches but made numerous visits to the frontline to meet the soldiers and hold his readings there, is one of the established Ukrainian “guild” writers who declared his support for veteran literature.
All said, this new wave of authors and publishers of war literature is becoming more noticed in Ukraine. Notably, Yupak is the second book published by Bilka publishing house, which received the Fiction Book of the Year Prize. In 2019 the BBC Ukraine book prize (in the fiction category) was awarded to a war drama titled Dotsia (A little girl). It became the first published novel of Tamara Gorikha Zernia – a translator who, at the beginning of the war, began collecting donations and organised supplies for troops in Donbas. Her novel tells a story about a group that went undercover in 2014 trying to fight the separatists and Russian military forces in Donetsk.
Although Yupak’s plot did not directly relate to the war, Saigon decided to tie the storyline to it by writing a sort of post scriptum in the last chapter. He described how the main characters behaved in 2014 by placing one of them in the trenches on the Ukrainian side and the other of them on the Russian one. Yet, in the comments he made in the press and on social media, Saigon declared that the war will not be the subject of his future projects. He wants to move on.
Saigon, as a daring novice, showed off by finishing the final chapter of Yupak by showing he was in Paris. He visited the capital of France to present the Ukrainian diaspora with his earlier (his first actually) book, Греязь /Khaki (Dirt/Khaki). It seems that by provoking discussions and occasionally showing off, Saigon may depart from his trademark in the future.
Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist, and a frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.