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14 March, 2012

The Ukrainian Perspective on Politics

We badly need a Hohol of our time who would point out what has been lost by Eastern European politics

In my book on politics and literature recently translated into Ukrainian (whose launch I eagerly await), I made honourable mention of Mikhail Bulgakov and his work of genius, The Master and Margarita. The Ukrainian-born writer, who became a dissenting voice of Russian literature silenced for decades, anticipated the emergence of modern barbarity. His masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, is a modern – and essentially East European – version of the tale of Faust, yet this time the story is of a woman who gives her soul to the Devil in exchange for her beloved man, a cornered and anguished writer confined to a mental asylum. The book allows us to regard this great Ukrainian and Russian writer to have been for Eastern Europe what Kafka was for Central Europe. He was a prophet of the modern form of evil or of the Devil in politics, if you will.

In addition to Bulgakov’s political and moral incisiveness which is manifest in his novels and stories like The Heart of a Dog or The Fatal Eggs, both inter-textually anticipating one another and also paving the way for The Master and Margarita, he is the brightest example of what theorists call the anxiety of physical destruction, as opposed to the anxiety of influence. The anxiety of influence appears as more widespread in the West, whereas the anxiety of physical destruction seems more characteristic of Eastern Europe.

The sense of the surreal, grotesque and absurd is widely believed, and with sound reason, to have been deeply grounded in Eastern and Central European literature. In fact, it reached Parisian literary circles through Eugène Ionesco, yet it was also manifest in such Polish writers as Witold Gombrowicz and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. If we can derive this form of literary sensitivity and of the representation of the world from Jonathan Swift, then we should add immediately that the genius of Ukrainian literature, Mykola Hohol[1], was much of an East European Swift.

A major figure in Eastern European literature, Hohol may have been the father of the modern political fable based on a strong sense of the surreal, grotesque and absurd. If Hohol was the Swift of Eastern Europe, then Mikhail Bulgakov seems to be the Kafka of Eastern Europe. No matter how uniquely distinct and incomparable these writers are in terms of style and form, they best caught and expressed what was Zeitgeist of their epoch.

It was with good reason that Arthur Koestler once called his close friend George Orwell the missing link between Jonathan Swift and Franz Kafka. Without a shadow of a doubt, we could confer similar roles in Eastern European and world literature to the geniuses of multilingual, rich and magnificent Ukrainian literature like Mykola Hohol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Sholem Aleichem, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, Yuri Olesha, to name just a few.

Or we could recall Paul Celan, a great Ukrainian-born Romanian-Austrian poet whose name was engraved with golden letters on the German-speaking world’s literary map as a reference to the best in postwar European poetry. A poet of genius, a translator of Russian poetry, including Osip Mandelstam, Paul Celan immortalized his name with Todesfuge (Death Fugue) – the greatest poem ever on the Shoah. This shows that Ukraine is quite a fertile soil of thought, moral imagination and sensitivity that covers an immense territory of modern experience, from the comic to the tragic.

Playing a subtle game with literary allusions, the eminent Yale historian Timothy Snyder stressed in the article on Ukrainian politics that he wrote for The New York Review of Books that Hohol’s Nose was a symbol of the absurdity and deformity of the Russian tyrannical state and the seemingly powerful, albeit grotesque, bureaucracy it produced. Yet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appears in Snyder’s essay as a character losing his hands, instead of his nose: hands that have a life story of their own. These are hands that can steal or beat an innocent person.

We badly need a Hohol of our time who would point out what else has been lost by Eastern European politics, a Hohol who would shed more light on Western Europe’s deformities as well.

[1] Mykola Hohol is the way the name Nikolai Gogol reads accurately in Ukrainian

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