Yellow T-shirt of a loser

Serhiy “Kolos” Martyniuk. “Captain Sadness” Kharkiv: Fabula, 2018. 416 p.

Meni fioletovo. (From Ukrainian “I don’t care” – translator’s note). Have you heard this idiom? Do you know what does it mean? Yes, exactly the thing: “I’m middle of the road, I don’t give a damn, it’s an irrelevant request for my experience, I don’t care about your and my existential cataclysms, go to hell, my dearests”. It naturally springs to mind because Serhiy Martyniuk – Romanist-debutant – is a frontman of the “Fiolet (violet – translator’s note) music band. But it’s not the only reason. His fresh “Captain Sadness” is violet, indifferent to the cataclysms, crises and problems. The novel, which doesn’t give a damn.

A kooky dude’s gussied up like a cheap whore and unpleasantly surprises truck-drivers, then he robes a sex-shop, then sings rap in karaoke bar about his dirty life, he finishes with declarations about the black racism, which hinders white rappers to reach the musical pantheon and here he jumps on the mountain of sand from the fourth floor and immediately presents himself and a serial rapist and brothel owner (hope to God he’s pretending). This is Pi. He’s Captain Sadness, the protagonist of the novel. And a nameless man narrates about him, Pi attracts him frankly, tempts and genuinely scares. Why does Pi do all this? I don’t give a f**ck. I mean – who knows, I mean – the one who is a chronic damager, I mean – someone’s lost.

In the first scene of the novel, Pi wears a yellow T-shirt which he stole in a secondhand store and which is two sizes bigger. A narrator, using free association, says that this outfit would fit Christ. But it’s unlikely to be a shroud. Pi also has a bad habit to scratch scabs on the skin and he’s always bleeding like a stigmatic. But it’s not a shroud after all. In the suburbs of Zhytomyr, an imaginary yellow T-shirt of a winner flutters in the wind, which Pi put on mistakenly. His victories are stolen, ragged and don’t fit him in size.

Unaccidentally, two “colour” characters in Martyniuk’s novel are together, they’re complementary. Pi wears a yellow T-shirt, the narrator sunglasses with violet glasses; both things are stolen. Pi centripetally defines his chronicler or as it’s written in the novel (unevenly): “Pi was an ideal suicidal tool for my usual “I”. Always”.

Don’t expect the conscious storyline: “Captain Sadness” is kind of Kerouac who had fallen asleep while reading Kesey. A slow novel about the road. Pi is slightly older than the narrator, he chanced to be an idol of the youngsters in native Dubno at the end of the 1990s. And now when a boy-narrator finally decided to grow up and dilute with a quiet life, Pi appears and seduces into travelling. Pi has a dream: to visit all his bastards. The narrator has a dream: to become Pi. And then “eclipse” and voila! prostitutes and fights on the Zhytomyr motorway. They manage to generalize their intentions with great effort. And the whole thing started: “Where are you from, guys? – We’re from the road”. Rivne – Zhytomyr – Kyiv – Poltava – Dnipro – Zaporozhia – Kherson – Odesa – Vinnitsia – Rivne – Lutsk – Lviv – Synevyr – Drohobych. One summer. Don’t hope for travelogue: the cities are alike. Unless Synevyr, where the crocodile lives. Didn’t you know?

After all, there’s a story about the love triangle. In Dubno, ten-year-old, give or take, boys met Alisa. So, three of them were friends. Two men are still in love with her. In Lutsk, she joins the journey and it turns out that she loves one of them mutually. Don’t hope for melodrama although there will be a poor suicide attempt because of love sufferings. Just love is a valuable answer but the characters struggle with “a priori” values with all their might. To admit something’s important means to become obsessed. Because to say “I love you too” means to take responsibility for that person.

They behave as sixteen-year-old teens, even while experiencing sexual debut (belated). But they’re far from sixteen. The narrator, judging by his stories, is 27. What about Pi, Pi is a number Pi, perhaps 3,14; more precisely – just a number because one the epigraphs will hint: “Age is just a number”. The one who sees the eyes will count: 31 and 27. The allusion to “club 27” – live dangerously, die young – often works in the novel but in the reverse order. In Martyniuk’s world, nobody grows up. They live so quick-firely that they die before birth. They only have time to read “The Catcher in the Rye” (the narrator brings up this book during the journey without mentioning that he belongs to an absolutely different age group than that cult problem teenager). “Kamikaze has fuel only for one direction” – a favourite phrase from Pi’s teenage lexicon, which he’d forgotten, being an adult but continues the corresponding practice. But there’s one thing: kamikaze’s aim isn’t a suicide, an early death for him is a “side-effect”.

And I mentioned Kesey not only because he lent one of eight (!) epigraphs to “Sadness”. There is an important reference to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and this is, properly speaking, the only psychologically successful moment in the novel. Talkative, unbearably bloviating narrator of the novel is always silent in life. He’s mute, “shell-shocked” as it’ll be said here. Only once it’ll be mentioned that he could scream (yelled like a child, when Pi planted him a snake), but then – no sound. Because of a childhood trauma, a wordy narrator doesn’t speak aloud: hysteria as it is, which claims to be the “truth of life” and “the truth of the testimony”. Or, maybe he pretends to be mute – such an avatar of the “Chief” Bromden. Martyniuk’s narrator is a witness, attached to the rebel Pi-MacMurphy and the one who controls this rebellion and the one who will finally put an end to it. Dubno native, practically an Indian, why not? And we remember that the only one who’s able to resist the system is a rioter’s loved shadow of the protagonist.

Why did this loser in a leader’s T-shirt and his mute fellow throw all this hustle-bustle?

In the novel, two-time spaces are crossed: actual present and recent past, more precisely: the mid-1990s. Formally, the 1990s are Pi’s and narrator’s childhood memories (cliche about the last crust of bread and snuff of glue). Martyniuk writes that the 90s are a historical cataclysm which supposedly awakened the strive for life in the generation of teens. Recent thirty-year-olds know about the will for life only from their childhood memories.

Nothing exceptional happened to them back then: they smoked behind the garages, stole others’ mail, and incited fights between districts. The narrator, Pi and Alisa belong to different social layers and this difference becomes more acute in the 90s. The narrator literally lives in poverty, he often describes his 90s as “hunger” – physical, intellectual, emotional. There’s one interesting observation, Pi says that in the 2010s compared with the 1990s, the number of rats, cockroaches and cockchafer rapidly decreased. Pi thinks about imminent apocalypse because of this. It’s worth thinking about the glasses for a person who’s growing up and starts to notice the lack or excess of something in life.

Pi addresses the mute as “brother”. They’re brothers not because of the fact of the mutual journey or mutual childhood memorabilia. Simpler or more difficult: they both don’t know the parents or more precisely: their fathers made off before they met their sons (Pi himself regularly does it). This is the kinship of orphans and this is a brotherhood of two who are deprived of the necessary at the start.

However, that heedless conflict of the rebels in “Captain” doesn’t define the lack or excess but availability and unavailability of benefits. Martyniuk’s travellers protest against consumption society (something new, isn’t it?) but desperately strive to join it. I’ll remind you, their yellow and violet clobbers, symbolic for everyone – are stolen.

However, they protest against the present, which they couldn’t fit. Martyniuk uses the protagonist’s muteness as a metaphor on another level of “Sadness”.

The conflict is already internal: it’s the way the narrator perceives time and the course of history as a reference of reference (an attentive reader of Salinger is guided by the dialectical materialism, it’s funny). Three prompts from the novel look like this. First: “The past didn’t let me go”. Second: “The present was silent”. Pesky Pi and mute narrator divided the time intervals between them. And finally, the result of that division: “In this journey, my time belongs to Pi”. The stupid eternity of reckless wanderings is a means to dismantle and glue in a new way that cyclic time, to somehow fix the length of that reliably locked circle (Pi!). In a nutshell, to change the places of present and past with the help of violent interference.

Where’s the future? On the road, fellow travellers ask the boys something about the war but this is an unwelcome and tiring topic. Obviously, these aren’t the first years of the war. There’s an epilogue in the novel, the action of which takes place after three years of the main events. Apparently, it’s the future. And in this future, another red bus starts in a provincial bus station. And a ticket is already in the traveller’s hand.

That boring journey turns out to be fatal for both men: this is the beginning of the new life for the narrator and the end of something for Pi. “The beginning – the end” – the way we think about the historical and biographical time, which Martyniuk’s young boys should learn. Interesting that the narrator, who calls himself “statistic”, will successfully complete a study course in this story. The scenery in Martyniuk’s world is smarter than actors. By the way, Pi’s name correlates with another phrase regularly repeated in the novel. The narrator’s mother uses it: “Pity u svit” (from Ukrainian “get out into the world” – translator’s note). Nothing positive in this phrase, the mother uses it with an educational purpose to rein a naughty boy. “If you do something wrong, you’ll get out into the world”. The question to this prophecy-curse only one: “Who will stay when everyone goes?”. Many vacancies will be left to infinitely young losers.

To have a violet colour, a gradation of blue-red-blue must happen. To have such a positive indifference which means the phrase “I don’t care”, a person has to endure various (cyclic) phases of interaction with others and the world. Basically, this was written in “Sadness”: about the conditions of co-existence of principle loners. Or how Pi (affectedly) reflects on this in his pseudophilosophical sententia: “It’s better the birds’ crap on my head than people’s under my feet”, Pi liked repeating. “Or may have I said something wrong?…”.

No, dude, everything you said was right and timely, you’d better wipe off the crap from your head and feet now.

Hanna Uliura

Leave A Reply