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25 January, 2012  ▪  Iryna Troskot

Biology of an Author

Taras Prokhasko speaks on the fundamental elements of being, models of an ideal Ukraine and his own writings

Taras Prokhasko has been dubbed by critics and readers as “a Ukrainian Márquez” and a writer who looks at the world as if he were a plant. The Ukrainian Week met the author in his native village of Deliatyn in the Carpathian Mountains in his ancestral home.

It is important to understand that there are no better or worse places.Of course, you can rank places on various scales: success, temperature, precipitation, etc. You can also use one criteria only and say that this place is good because you can find a job here and that one is bad because no grapes grow there and so on. The most important thing is that you need to have your own place and accept it fully. You know you have it, if there are no doubts in your mind and you are not looking for arguments to explain why it is so beautiful. And you are not afraid to be there or leave it. It will hold you everywhere no matter whether you are in this place or elsewhere. You can have your own place, leave it and roam across the world, and you will be a totally different person in this world if you know that that place exists somewhere for you and you can go there at any time. It is like very powerful support from the rear in warfare. I have a place like this – it is a part of Deliatyn in Ivano-Frankivsk Region called Posich.

HOW CIVILIZATIONS GROW

I grew up in the Carpathians and all of my teachers were local, but the myth of Cossack Ukraine was definitive. It is strange that we Galicians have always had our history, our own realities and life but have always perceived the Ukrainian idea in the Cossack State which we did not experience first-hand. Curiously, the most apocryphal and semi-legitimate legends about Dovbush (he was an exceptional man!) tell about his trips to the Black Sea coast. We know what he did in the Carpathians, but one or two years are not accounted for in his biography. Thoughts about large expanses and Great Ukraine can be traced in these legends.

Now we have been handed independence and responsibility.The only difficulty is that a society or a community is made up of many people who are very different. No one can or wants to carry responsibility for what someone else does, while the other person enjoys the same rights as a member of the community but has a different concept of what he is supposed to do. This is a search for a line between what we should and should not demand of our fellow countrymen. It would be a wrong to believe that we can impose our views on others and expect them to fit our ideas of what the world and human actions should be. So when people say some things failed to happen, I disagree because I believe that everything has happened and what is taking place now is very interesting and very dynamic. It may not meet the expectations of some people, but all of this is the accumulation of experience. After all, no-one knows how things should be in reality, because the various proposed models of an ideal Ukraine have contained few recipes and explanations apart from the idea of independence for the country. Those that did have suggestions were often quite frightening. We also lost a lot of time that could have been used for creative activities, because we were not able to do things on our own behalf and according to our own will. Now we have plenty of time to try, explore and acquire experience. Of course, I am not enthralled by what is happening in the country, but I know that we should not be afraid of it, become disillusioned or sink into depression. The main thing is not to be afraid of life, and life is what we have in abundance.

The parts of Ukraine where Ukrainian is not spoken are not dear to me. I can go there without any problems and be there without feeling excessively stressed out, but at the same time I am fully aware that I am not in my native land there. We have a very expressive word chuzhyna ‘foreign land.’ When I go somewhere there, my internal operations are reduced to comparing small details with what I have in my own Ukraine. I have come to believe that there is more of the same thing hiding behind variety. Human life is made up of a limited set of elements that are defining and are the same everywhere – several emotions and deep experiences. Where these things happen is a different question. As a biologist, I begin to see that for example the amount of sunlight has an impact on all living things or how plants shape civilizations. For example, in some countries olives grow and in others potatoes grow. Civilizations are built around such basic botanical things. But all of this is decoration. In reality, there is a very limited choice of fundamental elements in the construction called life. I mean elements that are stable, basic and inescapable regardless of the time and conditions you live in.

When I was a child, I was surrounded by people who remembered the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the First and Second World Wars. I seemed to have access to living history that was worth experiencing and recording. I was shocked that my reality was already history described in textbooks and encyclopedias, while I was talking to people who knew it from a somewhat different angle. It was different because they were there. It was a kind of impetus that made me think for the first time that I could write – I was driven by a desire to record things. Now I perceive all this differently. I understand that these memories are significant primarily for the people who have them.

Austria-Hungaryunited territories that had an intangible spirit of mutual understanding. There was nothing in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would stand out as alien. It was a remarkable phenomenon when the structure of the state matched the organic and natural things, even in terms of climate. I grew up in Ivano-Frankivsk and remember the following myth: life was better under Austria. It is, however, eclipsed by the myth about what was under Poland. Austria became a more distant memory, while Poland was a more recent one. But both were remembered as something very good just because they were followed by the Soviets.

BIOLOGY AS A MODEL OF THINKING

It seems to me that  in a certain sense biology is what remains of the old departments of philosophy with their broad scope. Biology offers explanations for various systems. In other words, I am interested in biology as a model of thinking rather than in some specific knowledge as an epistemological method. Back in the early 1980s, I was very keen on naturalist writers who were very fashionable at the time. The Mir and Progress publishers translated and published works by Joy Adamson, Bernhard Grzymek, Farley Mowat and, finally, Jacques Cousteau who passed away just a short time ago. Belles-lettres books on nature were very common at the time. It was also one of the few branches of literature free of any ideology. I was perfectly aware of the fact that I did not want to be a Soviet scholar in the humanities. I was very sorry to observe the few writers and journalists whom I knew and who were markedly Soviet.

From the viewpoint of biology, man is built in such a way as to distinguish himself and several closest people. All the others – in the metro and on the streets – simply do not exist. Egocentrism is a very important feature. We perceive the world from our own point of view and not in any other way. Perhaps the goal of culture is to permit us to see that there are other living beings next to us and that they, too, have their own experiences. In fact, culture balances out egocentrism. At the same time, it is important to be able to look at yourself with self-irony – to look at your own experiences and realize your mediocrity in the good sense of this word. To put it differently, you begin to understand that there are countless people like you. Your story is not better or worse, and it has meaning at this moment only because you have chosen to speak about it.

A certain percentage of some clearly unhappy and angry people, very nice people and simply consumers are unchangeable. Most people are consumers, and our time is very convenient for them, because consumerism has become a global ideology in such a brazen manner for the first time ever. They have a very good civilizational and cultural point of support; they are on a roll. But equally unchanging is the percentage of people who are interested in doing something, want to accomplish things, have talents and possess a desire to apply them somewhere. There is also a certain percentage of people who are simply unhappy and vacillate between depression and aggression. Of course, every historical moment is special and helps or discourages one group or another. But it seems to me that things are very stable on balance.

TEXTS WITHOUT RECOMMENDATIONS

I have been aware for a long time now that I am not an author of popular texts, and I can easily picture people who simply do not want to read the things I write. I have nothing against them and understand that they are the majority. It very often happens that when I see a problem that is interesting to me, I commit it to paper and face a choice of how it should be described – in a more understandable or a more interesting way from my viewpoint – I choose the latter. I understand that my works are not light reading.

The book entitled BotakYe (That's how it is - Ed.) is indeed a conclusion. I used to think that I had to write for some purpose and for some audience, that there was incredible responsibility for everything I said and that each text had to be justified and well-argued. Now I believe there can be texts without any such burden. Writing is just an action I need to perform. I have freed myself from giving advice to anyone else. I can only explain what I know and what I want to share. But pointing out whether it is good or bad – I no longer have to do that. I am free from imbuing my texts with any additional sense. NeprOsti (The UnSimple - Ed.) marked a very nice period when I wrote prose and let myself do absolutely anything I wanted. I would like to return to something like that.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Taras Prokhasko

Prokhasko was born in 1968 in Ivano-Frankivsk and studied at the Department of Biology in Ivan Franko Lviv State (now National) university. He is a professional botanist and now works as a writer and journalist. He participated in the student movement of 1989-91. In 1992-94, he was a co-editor of the Chetver (Thursday - Ed.) magazine. He has authored about 10 books and received an award from the Smoloskyp Publishers and the Joseph Conrad award.


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