A Ukrainian “kult” by Deresh
Gianfranco Franchi | 25-03-2008 | ENG
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)
Welcome to the new free Ukraine. The Soviet nightmare is over. The enemy has flown, is vanquished, but hasn’t been defeated yet. From the pages of one of Ukraine’s youngest writers: Ljubko Deresh.

Lviv, the ancient capital of Austro-Hungarian Galicia, in present day Ukraine, is one of the realities that remain of the Soviet Socialist regime. Before it became Ukrainian, it was a Polish city and, as such, was embroiled in the bloody conflict between Poles and Russians, obstinate tyrants of a nation that has fought relentlessly to gain its independence. Relentlessly and proudly if not with dignity: domestic equilibrium, it seems, is proving more difficult.

The factions involved, from the point of view of a Mediterranean European, are the westward-looking (let’s not forget the “Orange” protesters) and those that look towards Russia. This is probably an over-simplification of things: it’s not just a question of opposition between nostalgic liberals and socialists. It appears that the Ukrainian conflict is the classic one of countries with borders where different ethnic groups converge: countries massacred by a periodic change of flag.

The problem, then, lies in defining and being conscious of one’s actual identity. What could Lviv, this artistic city with its many names (too many?), give birth to?

Kult. Ljubko Deresh’s debut novel – or at least that’s how his Italian publisher is marketing it – is a splendid allegory of the frame of mind of young Ukrainian intellectuals. Reality dissolves and changes shape with remarkable ease. You just have to be open to the experience. The novel explores psychedelia, the distortion of perceptions, in order to arrive at a proximate vision of the nation’s deformity and contrasts. The uniformity of the self is destroyed. The predictability of the plot, overflowing into fantasy and horror, is reminiscent of Lovecraft one minute, Bulgakov the next, in search of some integral quality that may not even be there and that, if only it could be revealed, would show the path that could be taken with determination and commitment.

This is exactly what I expected of a young Ukrainian of the class of 1984: the negation of everything that was decrepit, rotten and decayed about Soviet ideological realism; fantasy given free rein, allowed to gallop along; emergence from the nightmare unaware of the precariousness of the new reality; the search for a definition of what is real; the struggle to decipher the many voices that claim to be the nation, that would impose their own borders, laws, language, culture.

Unquestionably, it is an atypical and promising novel, completely alien to what some people would wish to find in the vacuum left after the fall of one of the “Empires of Evil”. Kult is a complex, stratified book, full of energy and intelligence, characterised by showers of quotations and homage that are not always clearly decipherable; but in not one case are they directed towards the East. They are always courageously and proudly Ukrainian, Central European and Western.

The protagonist of the novel is a very young biology professor, Jurko Banzaj, who corrects anyone pronouncing their words with a Russian accent, if you get my drift. And he’s right to do so. The time has come for people to return to who they are in essence and renounce servitude. The time has come to be proud and brave. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the first country to reprint and translate this novel was Germany, followed shortly afterwards by Italy.

I mentioned that the Italian publisher has presented the book as if it were a debut novel by a sixteen year old Ukrainian writer. I say “as if”, because – despite obvious difficulties – I scoured the web in search of clear, up-to-date reliable biographical information. The task, I hasten to add, wasn’t exactly successful. According to the German Wikipedia entry, Deresh’s actual debut work is Die Anbetung der Eidechse. Oder: Wie man Engel Vernichtet (literal translation: “The Adoration of the Lizard. Or: How to Destroy Angels”).

Simone Buttazzi tells us that “Deresch is the author of four novels and several short stories. His second novel, Kult, was published in October 2005 by Suhrkamp in Germany. His debut novel, also with Suhrkamp, was published in November 2006. Deresch’s novels are modelled on the literature of fantasy and horror of Lovecraft, Poe and King. They contain various allusions to these authors as well as to works by classical and contemporary Ukrainian authors. In the summer of 2006 Deresch graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Lemberg. He currently makes his living as a writer”.

Could German Wikipedia be wrong? Of course, I suspect it could. And then, according to BusinessWeek, this young Ukrainian has already published five novels. At this point, I take Ljubko Deresh’s most important work to heart. Hoping that political change will be smooth in the future.

So, who ought to read about the vicissitudes of our protagonist, Jurko Banzaj? First of all, whoever is interested in finding out about Ukrainian culture; secondly whoever loves Lovecraft - I can assure enthusiasts of his that they will be more than satisfied with this rereading and interiorisation of the Master’s lessons. Therefore, whoever would like to delve further into the path laid out by Castaneda: here, Don Juan is mentioned right from the beginning and the avenue explored is one of lucid dreaming.

I could also recommend this book to lovers of prog rock, psichedelia and rock. Among the names and references that will be familiar and establish a certain kind of atmosphere, we have King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Van Der Graaf Generator, as well as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors. Finally… and I say this with some trepidation: whoever enjoyed Bulgakov’s The Master and Margherita for its new way of representing a flight and the superimposition of reality. My trepidation is due to the hallucinogenic nature of these flights which is stated from the outset (the protagonist has already been through three resuscitations after ingesting the wrong kind of mushroom), and is explicitly described in the narrative.

The narrative itself is at times feverish, chaotic, bordering on unintelligible, seeming to steer clear of coherence, clouded by Utopia. Then again, that is the aim. The non place, the incarnation of dreams has always been the aim for people who, like Deresh’s Jurko, wish to access the Library of Babel, the language of all languages, universal consciousness, the beginning of the new liberation.

The novel opens with a young, brilliant biology student who is almost qualified, teaching in a high school. He has been flung to the far reaches of a godforsaken town, and finds himself among people who stock up on candles for fear of the next black-out. His neighbours are spiteful, odd and uncommunicative. Relationships with colleagues don’t seem to happen either. The students are a caste he needs to figure out, between chuvaki (synonymous for “casual”) and patsany (synonymous for “formal”), like Sunnis and Shiites in Islam, according to the author.

Meanwhile, Jurko smokes, drinks, sleeps, prepares his classes and thinks of her. Her, needless to say, is one of his students, Darcja Borges, who reads King and Vonnegut: a maloljetka, “as they say in Kiev”. In other words, a minor. She is open to other realities, extremely beautiful and seductive. The outcome isn’t quite what you’d expect.

Welcome to the new, free Ukraine. The Russian nightmare is over, Ljubko. The enemy has flown, is vanquished, but hasn’t been defeated yet.

(March 25, 2008)
Ljubko Deresh
Lain, 2007
pp. 253; euro 14,50

Original Ukrainian Ed.
Knyzhnyk, 2002

This review first appeared in full on Lankelot, (9 October 2007).
It has been abridged for trilobiti by the author.

For more web-based information on contemporary Ukrainian literature, you can read Tymofly Havryliv’s article (in English) on Eurozine.