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2 September, 2011  ▪  Oksana Shchur

Literature’s Long Journeys

Ukrainian writers have come down with a bout of travelmania

The genre of  travel prose in our literature is becoming more and more popular. Books in which the author wants to share where he was and what he saw become best sellers, and presentations gather crowds of fans. In fact, these books are journey diaries. Descriptions of the hero’s emotional experiences and psychological insight sink into the background, as these goodies are not the main treat in this kind of writing.

However, a travelog is not just an advertising pamphlet of the Earth. By telling about foreign lands, the author also tells quite a bit about himself and his country, the way he thinks and what he seeks. And since mass literature by definition makes active use of stereotypes, we can draw some conclusions not only about authors, but also about the readers.

THE PROFESSIONAL TRAVELER

Maksym Kidruk is the first professional traveler in modern Ukrainian literature. He writes his works in a reportage style and emphasizes his commitment to the Western tradition of the travelog genre. Not without reason there is a “table of authorities”, so to speak, a list of works that became paragons for the young author (Thor Heyerdahl, Tahir Shah, Rolf Blomberg, etc.). However, these chronicles strongly resemble Soviet adventure books. This idea is suggested by a somewhat refined language, which is not yet devoid of the joy of life. For example, “’Jan, to hell with this Amazonia! Let’s just go home, eh?’ I said in a husky voice.” You can’t disagree that in an emergency Ukrainians’ speech is more dynamic than that of the character in hisTravel to the Hub of the Universe. Perhaps the author should include something else in his “reading list” besides thoroughly edited works, Jack Kerouac, just for one. After all, it is a classic and it’s about travel, too!

As far as Ukrainian texts go where the drama of a journey is reflected in the rhythm of speech, Kidruk should peruse Adventure by Artem Chapay and include it in the bibliography, the more so for their obvious resemblance. Its main character, a student of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy is traveling as well, all the way across the USA, Mexico, Guatemala, and Cuba. He also takes a friend along, has no money, and gets into trouble every now and then. At the same time he manages to keep travel notes which are full of slang and colloquial language and not complicated by an excessive use of idioms and subordinate constructions; it’s the language of a young blogger, rather than that of a long-time member of the Writers’ Union. Maybe that’s why Chapay’s character is luckier in love?

Let’s also keep in mind that traveling to foreign lands is the golden dream stemming from the hero’s Soviet childhood – he had read a lot of domestic authors and translations from approved Western books on adventure and travels. And if in olden days one needed a heroic occupation (like that of an astronaut, geologist, polar explorer, or sailor) as a pass to the exotic world, now such fancies can be achieved even by a reckless postgrad, as it is accomplished by Kidruk’s character.

The writer obviously gets the credit for avoiding excessive conceptualization and philosophizing (of course, if you don’t qualify a patriarchal bachelor’s reflections “about life” that can be summarized in the compact phrase “To hell with girls – let’s get tickets!”). While a lot of mass writers try to add some depth to their works by seasoning them with strained aphorisms, Kidruk goes traveling again and again, bringing back impressions, pictures, and notes, and unfailingly puts out another best seller. The fact that his publishers have paid for one of his recent journeys can only be a compliment to his professionalism: they are sure that investing in one more Kidruk novel will be profitable.

THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE

One need not write a novel about journeys. A couple of short stories united under a common binding, may just as well do the trick. That is a reasonable description for In Search of OGOPOGO by the famous journalist Lesia Voronyna. Written in a captivating manner, this book is perhaps no less ironic than the popular Super Agent 000. Nevertheless, it doesn’t eliminate the problem of the structural principle of the book and doesn’t suggest any other answer except for the one we pointed out at the beginning: the author collected her notes about trips outside Kyiv, so we have one story about Tallinn, another about St. Petersburg, and a whole bunch about a vacation at a Hungarian resort.

The author makes a point to say that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. On this side it is always trampled down homo sovieticus drones. A post-Soviet person can ruin anything, the shell of civilization is yet way too thin. Boisterous Russian tourists literally stifle the charms of an Egyptian resort and overfeed sea goldfish with bread regardless of all warnings. Chornobyl children invited to stay in Wrocław bring along huge checkered shopping bags full of vodka and toothpaste, and try to sell their goods in the city square. But in Edmonton, for example, passers-by don’t spit on the sidewalk and a child in school can complain to a teacher about peers and that won’t be considered squealing.

So what can the main character, an intelligent woman, offer people in a culture with which our society claims to be trying to integrate? She uses every opportunity to present Ukrainians as normal people. National identity is opposed to the homo sovieticus (including his Ukrainian colonial variety). Ukrainian slobs, unlike their post-Communist counterparts of other nationalities (or in other countries?), are subject to rehabilitation as potential carriers of such identity.

Journeys Without Sense and Moralby Iren Rozdobudko will come in handy for travelers and anyone simply interested in the subject. It is a selection of stories about 10 countries the author has been to, and it is far more interesting than most guidebooks. Despite few names or specific reference points, this book is really useful. It will help to prioritize the reader’s to-see list, because normally one can’t manage to visit them all, or it will just inspire you to go somewhere else. And those who don’t like traveling will love the addenda: national cuisine recipes which are quite feasible to prepare in Ukraine, and a list of each country’s famous writers and their works that are worth reading. The author states in the introduction that it’s best to explore space via details. All further descriptions are like that, crumbly and corpuscular.

And Ukrainian identity is vividly depicted via a detail given in the first chapter: the taxi driver is envious of the heroine, whom he regularly drives to the airport, and she is a bit perplexed and supercilious. He’s got a new fridge while she’s got tickets. He belongs to the majority used to accumulating material possessions instead of collecting impressions. And the author is proud of being unlike everyone else, though she is embarrassed of her otherness in front of the driver. And neither of them seems to realize that the everlasting philistine–artist juxtaposition can be settled not only by engrafting the values of one on the other, but also by eliminating the problem of choice between a plane ticket and a washing machine, English courses and winter boots, etc.

PILGRIM LITERATURE AND AN ARISTOCRAT’S TRAVEL NOTES

It would be wrong to think that before Kidruk there was no such thing as travelog in Ukrainian literature. Life and Journeys of Danylo, Hegumen of the Land of Rus, written in the 12th century, is considered to be the first written monument of travel prose, a medieval story about a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. During the baroque age palmer literature comes into vogue: and autobiographical book Pilgrimage to the Shrines of the East From 1723 to 1724 by Vasyl Hryhorovych-Barsky contains an emotional description of adventures on the author’s way from Western Europe to Palestine and Egypt, and it also abounds in geographical, historical, and artistic details.

The 19th century Ukrainian literature is rich in innumerable “journeys from Poltava to Hadyach,” but Letters From Strange Lands by Yaroslav Okunevsky, published at the turn of the century and re-published two years ago by Tempora Publishers, do stand out. Okunevsky, an Austria-Hungary Navy Admiral, had been to Europe, Asia and Africa and wrote a thrilling description of his travels. Even his memoirs read like a full-fledged piece of literature. They abound in details and similes, and give a fair idea of the history, culture, and economics of exotic and neighboring countries. That’s how the reader learns that women in Spain are beautiful though their men are feeble, that Turks would have long assimilated the local Europeans if they had let their women get a European-style education, that the work force in Asia is cheap, which results in a crisis for French and English entrepreneurs. Okunevsky doesn’t lapse into excessive exaltation and doesn’t lose self-respect, but he does emphasize the superiority of Western culture. That’s the way he feels, being European, Ukrainian, an educated aristocrat and the representative of a great empire. There is no gap between Ukraine and the West for him, they share a common experience and, according to the author, the best part of it should be borrowed by other civilizations.

THE SNAIL KEEPS ON CRAWLING TO THE WEST

In a piece on travel prose printed in one periodical, Kidruk states that travelogs are popular because the author is at last freed from bonds imposed on him by Soviet ideology, and readers have become interested in stories about distant countries. This point is obviously quite doubtful. If adventure and travel books used to share bookshelves with sci-fi, today they have been moved to the guides and pulp fiction sections. This kind of read no longer broadens the horizons of an unattainable dream, it merely helps one experience the adventures he’ll never get around to in real life.

Ukrainian writers mostly set their stories in the West, or at least in its former colonies. Life over there is not bad, so the authors’ hopes that we will soon join that world as equals sometimes resemble the primordial human craving for a better lot.

And one more symptom: when a Ukrainian writer's character sets foot on foreign land, in the first place he identifies himself with his particular nation, and only later, if asked, represents himself as a scientist, journalist, or artist. So the new acquaintances mostly exchange national cuisine recipes and songs.

AUTHOBIO-GEOGRAPHY

New media become an environment in which travel literature can develop. There’s a special term for this phenomenon — “authobio-geography”. Bloggers inform their friends and interested readers of the course of the journey, and illustrate their comments with pictures to draw their attention. Online maps where you can check places you’ve already visited are popular, too. The iPhone and the mobile Internet have expanded opportunities even further: now you can post something like “I’m climbing a mountain peak” to your Facebook page without searching for wi-fi in a chance cafe. The integration of real and virtual spaces is reflected in the popular social network Foursquare which is available to those with GPS-serviced devices.

TO READ

Marquis de Custine, Russiain 1839. AFrench monarchist set off to the Russian Empire under Nikolai I, to find reasons against the republican system. Impressed by what he had seen, upon his return he gave a vivid description of numerous negative phenomena of the life there. He began to deny absolutism and gave his views on the historical fate of Russia, which has proved to be true in many aspects.

Ilya Ilf, Yevgeny Petrov, One-Storied America. Narrations by two Soviet writers about a trip across the United States from one coast to the other and back, which was made in 1935-36. The authors describe ordinary Americans’ everyday lives, tell about Hollywood, their visit to the White House, the electric chair, the rodeo, and praise the country’s most beautiful landscapes.

Pyotr Vail, The Genius of Place. The author attempts to comprehend the city through the prism of the geniuses who lived there. That’s how Byron and Brodskyi become guides to Istanbul, and Machiavelli’s biography and art help one feel the spirit of Florence. Los Angeles is Charlie Chaplin’s city while Paris is Dumas’, and Oslo is Munch’s. Another dimension of reality emerges where art, geography, and biography overlap.

Maik Yohansen, Doctor Leonardo's Travels through the Switzerland of Slobidska Ukraine with His Mistress to Be, Beautiful Alcesta.The modernist author ironically interprets and mocks the standards of the genre. Descriptions of nature, which are so popular in Ukrainian literature, got the most of it. The reader should tune in for some intellectual pleasure.


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