Applied voodoo

“The Toy”. Short stories about childhood. Lviv: The Old Lion Publishing House, 2018. 168 p.

You’re just toying with me! Why are you running around me like I’m your new toy? Stop squeezing me, I’m not your teddy bear!.. Have you heard this in the midst of private scandals? I’ve never understood why people think that comparisons with the toy are offensive and humiliating. Why a comparison with a toy should show that suddenly someone became someone else, not so important, and stopped being close and meaningful. Nothing is more important than a toy. And that’s not about childhood.

“The Toy” – this is the name of a conceptual collection of short stories. Thirteen prose writers have gathered together. In fact that writers are very different in style and their outlook; the only thing that binds these authors is the fact that all of them are in the gravity field of the Old Lion Publishing House. However, they’ve grouped not just for fun, but for a specific purpose: to share their memories and observations on how the toy influences little human. More precisely: how culturally influential is the assumption that a person is able to humanize a thing. Taking into our hands all sorts of Pinocchios and Teddy bears, we become the Creators. We transform the inanimate into a like-minded friend, or into the enemy-opponent. It depends on whom we need right now and how well we’ve mastered the magic art of revitalization. This book is about what we need. And no, I’m not talking about childhood yet.

Teddy bear of Halyna Vdovychenko, a self-made soldier of Dorje Batuu, a lucky horseshoe of Dzvinka Matiash, married dolls of Iryna Savka – Soviet blond and black-skinned trophy soldier, plush dog and golden-haired Pinocchio of Larysa Denysenko, chemistry set of Ivan Andrusyak and a lot of others. A toy is a universal thing; moreover, the relationship between the toy and its owner is purely historical and very specific.  Just by looking at those dolls and what the heroes-children do with them you can say with no doubt in what time-frames each story is set. TV had shown us the first “Rambo” – and an inventive eight-year-old already has a series of adventures for the brave commando-warrior (say hello to the 90’s). They brought from the city a gift – a factory-made doll with a rubber smile – she will be forever a princess on a neat cushion; the black work in the games will be performed by the rug-ladies (60’s, hey there). The teddy bear is not so soft (hello 70’s), and the dolls’ legs are no longer soft (yes, it is 80’s). That way decades pass.

Here, the story of Larysa Denysenko rules as a real history of the everyday life of the late 1980s, furthermore this everyday life is rich. Maybe the only one in the book, this work is hilarious-funny, though it’s not without a light note of nostalgia. So here we have, “Yashas and Buratinas” by Denysenko and


There’s no KGB or God for them, bastards – the direct speech of aunty Natasha”. Yasha is a stuffed toy dog. He is dressed up in a luxurious denim suit, and he comes from the Baltic. From there he got his foolish name. Yashas has a good company – a dart toy gun, a Czech sports mosaic, Buratino (Soviet version of Pinocchio – translator’s note) with real hair and a collectible Russian-style doll with a glued braid that constantly falls off. The protagonist is the Kyivan child from privileged social groups. Dad has overseas business trips, and mother-teacher has problems with crazy neighbors-activists. Small toys, in particular, Yahsha the fancy pants, draw attention to the child: she is taught “not to show off” with cool toys, obviously of anti-Soviet style. She learns how to do her first business by renting Yasha’s costume. In it, people take pictures of their newborns. The toy has the aim of facilitating the socialization of the child, so what?

A country where toys can wear cool jeans, and people can’t; where a toy dog named Yasha deceives the famous name of Yakov Antonov, a hero of the USSR. The name that immediately must be recalled and honored by every child. The author incidentally mentions toys that in a few years will have to be burned – after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Actually, to that country, which from the mid-1980’s until its disappearance, was named the Country of Fools, the second hero of the story was going – the Balticized by Yashas’s influence Buratinas. Buratino toy completely changes the role in the final: his hair is cut, hair color changes to black, and he’s dressed in a serious suit. New country – new rules. Now Buratino is a minister and a wise ruler, no more games.

The political history of modern Ukraine in ten pages. If someone can make it smart and funny, her surname is definitely Denisenko. For the toy in her story is not an illustration to the passage of time and change of state codes. In her world, comfortable pants of a stuffed doggy can destroy the empire.

In the end, it’s not only Denysenko. A toy in the book is not even a thing, it is something like technology. Every time they make new toys and in new ways, it doesn’t change the world at the level of thoughts or let’s say understanding. Children were playing and they will play. The game was educating and will educate. But each time new “Yashas” change the sensual perception of the world. I wonder if the image of the world of a certain generation depends on the clothes of the stuffed dog in a childhood, or how quickly the doll’s hair falls off. It depends infinitely. It’s not just about what child gets in a game fell the world by touch. This is clear. If the soft bear that has been torn – it can be left for a treatment, then the game will go on. And if the bear doesn’t have some kind of a stuffing, but it’s made of wood, then you can’t just fix it. And these two different people will be the owners of those radically different and almost the same toys.

The authors of “The Toy”, each of them, they write about the world that we perceive exclusively sensually – by touch, by ear, by taste. In this book, children-players often make their own body, not just a doll the instruments for the game. The player plays with his own body (and again, it seems that this book is not about childhood at all).

Oksana Lutsyshyna and Olena Huseynova make toy a thing that moves the story of their stories, a book, for example. Specific material thing – pages, cover, illustrations.  They write atmospheric prose, intonationally recognizable, and the book becomes some kind of transformer-toy, the ideal object of a) love and b) sorrow and loss.

“Our beloved” by Oksana Lutsyshyna is about a teenage girl. She comes to the countryside during the summer to her grandparents. In the coming-of-age stories, it’s most difficult to convey an atmosphere when anxiety and sadness are near when things go too fast, and the mood changes a hundred times per minute, when everything goes on for a long time, and you’re “locked” on one thought for years. Lutsyshyna does this due to the introduction of many interesting details and swift switches of her heroine’s view from one detail to another. For now, her parents have forbidden her to read so that her eyes and brain could rest. She almost illegally seized Spartacus and fell in love with one of its heroes. And why not? All her friends have already kissed. And as for the future – her grandmothers’ scenarios are not so appealing. The one is married to those who don’t love her, and the other (grandmother’s sister) had lost the one she loved and hadn’t married. So there are three of them in the summer kitchen: unloved, underloved and not yet ready to be loved. They are like archetypes from one old good poem: two girlfriends-peers – an old maiden and young widow. And only love for a dreamed young man from the book makes a real woman out of an archetype. Very young woman for now. However, there will be a plenty of time for the games.

In “The Toy”, the heroine of Lutsyshyna is the oldest one. A girl from “The inhabitants of the abyss” by Huseynova is maybe the youngest. She is four years old. “The inhabitants of the abyss” is the name of her favorite book: an illustrated encyclopedia about all sorts of sea creatures. They read that book with her parents and grandmother. 80’s are outside, the absurd Soviet and deeply provincial 80’s. The inhabitants of the abyss are a transparent metaphor, but it is good enough to describe the childhood of the last Soviet generation; the one that was put under the Soviet childhood as under the bus. The child must be happy, and you will be, baby. You will be happy whether you want it or not.

Well-known Soviet realities – kindergarten wet bed linen, nap times when you don’t want to sleep, solemn concerts to the anniversary of the October Revolution, and the storming of the Winter Palace in a separate provincial kindergarten, sticky porridge and cold buckwheat soup, nanny-jailer and conscious decision: “’Daddy, I’ll never go to the kindergarten,’ I say to the ceiling.” Yes, it’s illustrative: she addresses her father, but “I say to the ceiling” not to the father. Bazh, Gry, and Ala – Grandma, Dad and Mom. She calls them with the names that she has invented, and only this way – not pedagogically, she calls them like her dolls, with whom, by the way, she doesn’t like to play. She still can’t “normally” adjust even to them, to her parents. When they go to kindergarten, everything is wrong: for her father, she is too slow, for her grandmother she’s safe, for mother her walking is not enough feminine (4 years!). And for a dinner, they have a disgusting fish. In the book, the section about the sea star is still not finished. Spineless creatures do not survive in this world. That’s why build up your spine, my darling, by the way, this is a very painful evolutionary procedure.

The pleasure of playing consists of both sorrow and fear. The main thing in the game are the rules.  The game doesn’t tolerate the external arbitrariness of a human. When the ignorant invades, the game immediately stops. The plaything in “The Toy” is an object that replaces a living person, and by this, it disappoints. The toy becomes a magical twin of the person, and it enchants you. A human becomes a toy in someone’s game with no rules.

Completely all the stories in “The Toy” are intimate and symbolic, even if it’s not about autobiographical memories of the authors themselves. This is how the special space of this book was created: the prose for knowledgeable ones. In the end, the inventory for the game is incomprehensible for someone who’s out of it. Batuu converts a well-tied rope into a soldier, for example. And Matiash will play with a horseshoe. A young nerd from the story of Andrusyak, who dreamed of creating a homunculus with the help of the chemistry set for school children, is conquered by the miracle of the already created world. He is scared to death by the banal stuff that occupied the very closet where his new toy is stored.

Things from the world of the game transform into the things from the real world, they add meaning to them. At the same time, they don’t change their nature, it is clear: a horseshoe gifted by grandfather,won’t turn into a train, which was late to come to grandpa on time. Toys won’t make this world more comfortable or even easier to understand. Even children’s games can be very difficult, you know. So, we’re still speaking not only about childhood.

It seems to me that three stories in “The Toy” create a separate plot. The one that is infinitely important in this book. These are the texts by Halyna Kruk, Marianna Kiyanovska and Victoria Amelina.

The desperately painful “Precious” by Kiyanovska is Donetsk at the very beginning of the war. More precisely, this is one little girl and her big trouble. Here the war serves to scale the grief of this child. You hate someone so much that you’re ready to kill. You’re hated by someone so much that he’s ready to kill you. And that one is your mother.

Marginalized family: mother is alcoholic and prostitute, grandmother is severely ill and dies in a while, her granddaughter – nobody needs her, constantly hungry and lonely child. With the beginning of ATO everything changes. Mother finds herself a patron – separatist militant. He’s from the locals: he was a successful businessman, had a wife and a daughter. They were killed in the criminal feud, so now he’s just looking for death. And the war ideally suits those searches. There are not three people living together, there are four of them: an elderly woman comes to help with maintaining a luxury apartment. They are some kind of surrogates: daddy, who is not daddy, a grandmother who is not a grandmother and mother who isn’t a mother, even though she gave birth to this child. Precious is a mother’s favorite word. This name will be given to homemade doll. She makes four of these dolls, one for each character. Some kind of an applied voodoo in order to summon a happy childhood. The war goes on. And in this war, the dolls that call for parental love will be the first to perish.

“Nameless” by Amelina also exist in the same occupied territories. There are three of them here and each without a name. The eastern girl that was left alone in an abandoned by adults hut. A Ukrainian soldier who’s trying to get out of the enemy’s surrounding. And big-eared torn toy Cheburashka (a character from the popular Soviet cartoon – translator’s note). Nameless is a reference to a song that a yet not named creature from a famous Soviet cartoon was singing. And this is something obviously bigger because all the heroes of Amelina formally have names or even a few of them. However, something important, the root cause of this whole thing will not receive a name, it’s scary and painful to say it aloud: “They sit and drink tea near the window: still not old commander without his platoon, a fair-haired girl from a country that doesn’t exist, and a weird animal with scars – the nameless one.” This is the world where the sunset, seen by a small child, is described in the concepts of “capitulation”, “occupation”, “the front line”. This is the world, where a child’s funny toy is culpable of war, the end of which is not visible.  However, there is also a jam jar, there is a mug of boiled water – you can drink tea and watch how their-our-your lives (what’s the difference?) are destroyed.

“The Doll named Nadiya” by Kruk describes Lviv childhood of the late 70’s, and it seems it’s not even close to the issue raised by Kiyanovska and Amelina. The girl finds a doll that has fallen from the top floor just under her feet. This is that doll named Nadiya: a skirt with an apron, a cap, soft arms, and legs – what a miracle. This doll is incredibly similar to the one her Grandma was talking about. She had her own Nadiya. Upon the mother finds out about a new toy of her daughter, she with a scandal and allegations of theft makes daughter to find the owner and return the doll. Nadiya belongs to an adult woman who is mentally ill, for her the doll is the only joy in life. The doll is returned to the legitimate owner. In the memories of already grown up storyteller the doll Nadiya and grandma were tightly connected forever. Not only because someone else’s doll looked just “like the one my grandma was talking about, while she was recalling her childhood before the war.” Now, a woman will return to the house, where once she was living and playing with Nadiya. She will recall hers and grandmother’s childhoods. Several times she will name those memories as a “doubled childhood”, her grandmother’s and her own. And then it will be clear what this emotional story is about.

You’re just toying with me! Tell me why, why it can be an insult? For this is the most sincere declaration of love. The desire for interaction, in which something inanimate becomes alive, something non-existent – embodied, and something senseless – meaningful. These are relations in which we acquire what we need. No, “The Toy” is definitely not a book about childhood. Almost in every story, the protagonists-children cut off long braids of their dolls while they’re playing in serious games. As they say – long hair, long road. If you’re playing in a mutual understanding, if you’re making for yourself the one whom you will love, and who will love you in return – the road will be long, that’s for sure. Something as long as a human’s life, give or take.

Hanna Ulyura

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