Svitlana Taratorina. Lazarus Kyiv: KM-Books, 2018. 416 p.

A good and a high-quality book is the one that will be re-read. In the 1960s, one study came out, which made a lot of noise and was perceived as a hooligan and provocative one. Its main thesis was as follows: good books are re-read, the quality of the book is determined not by the way it was written, but by the way it was read. Bad news for bullheaded advocates of lofty prose: people willingly re-read those books that can entertain.

I give you my word, Lazarus by Svitlana Taratorina settles down in Ukrainian literature for a long time. It will be re-read because a lot of “beacons” and “traps” are scattered throughout the book, in order not to lose the attention of the reader during the second reading. In short, here we have some good genre fiction, which we don’t see quite often in modern literature, but when it appears, then it happens with all the power of “genre”.

The year 1913, Russian Empire. A year of exceptional financial, political and social well-being for the country (it is still used in popular historiography as the “golden standard” of empires). Kyiv blossoms and prospers due to the sugar industry and the unique local product that’s exported throughout the empire – dry jam. The city is quietly provincial, but its life is turbulent: half a century ago, the “settling boundary” was drawn through it.

At the end of the previous century, a series of pogroms and riots took place in the southern provinces. Initiated by the ethnic-biological majority of the empire they were targeted against minorities. Now, everything seems to be calm, and peoples live in moderate harmony; the minorities have their own ghetto-districts and privileged businesses; there are quotas for minorities in educational facilities and state institutions; quotas are very low, however, they’re working; the black hundredists and supporters of racial purity idea are only talking, but not acting; in Dumas , there are representatives of all groups of the population, although it is difficult to understand who holds the power this in this place. In short, everything lives and exists as we know it from the history textbooks.

The internal anxiety accumulates, and the Delavan comet is about to fly through the sky. Its appearance is interpreted as an apocalyptic sign; a peace that lasts for too long dismays with the fact that it may abruptly end; the heir to the throne is ill (by the way, dry jam really helps him during seizures). In the end, there’s nothing unknown, because we know what’s waiting for Kyiv in 1914.

Now we’re going to adjust this picture a little according to the world of Lazarus.

The minorities of Taratorina’s world that are subject to difficult living conditions in the Boundary are not human beings. The politically correct name for them is supernaturals, insulting – scums, officially they are called humanoids. Along with biological humans, there are humanoids of the most diverse species: zlydens (the best nippers at the market), mavkas  (herbalists), devils (politicians, shopkeepers), perelesnyks (gigolo), frog people (fortune-tellers and annoying neighbors), vodyanyks  (fishermen), witches (madams and restaurateurs),chuhaisters, snake-headed people, mermaids, werewolves, and vampires (the last two groups are the elite, although the wolfmen are considered to be the worst among humanoids). There are also undeads – zombies. The last time their invasion out of nowhere caused devastating epidemic in the southern province. No one is safe from the bite of the undead, everybody transforms: people are turning on the spot, and vodyanyks, let’s say, in a couple of days, however, everybody becomes “dumb zombie”. By the way, they say that undeads were seen around Kyiv again.

The official religion of this world is Orthodoxy. But those who wear amulets from Lavra don’t hesitate from time to time to turn them and pray the reverse side, where the Serpent is depicted. There are plenty of Serpent’s followers among supernaturals and humans as well. Distribution of information about this ancient Kyivan cult is prohibited. It exists in the form of folk artifacts like thoroughly encoded songs and reliably remodeled fairy tales of ancient times from collections of legends. Lazarus from the book’s title is the name of the author (obviously, pseudonym), who made and published such collection. And in one copy, he also left a hint on how to bring Serpent to life.

It is not too wise to bring back a deity, which prefers to be named the Serpent, and lives in the ominous area of Kyrylivska Hill. But it’s not that simple. The Serpent is a deity, he is neither good nor evil, to serve him is neither love nor hatred, he is the chthonic primal power, worshiping him is acceptance of that ambivalent force. “The blind and ruthless power of life,” the antonym of which is a merciful and insightful death (but in this world, you need to deserve death).

The Serpent was born in a marriage of scum and a man, their union was cursed and should have remained childless, but a miracle had happened. The fact that in the world of Taratorina inter-species marriages can produce offsprings, is important, moreover, it’s fundamental for her world and the novel; we’ll turn to it later. So, Obadaya is a child of the Byzantine emperor and a serpent-woman, the direct descendant of “demonic children” of Lilith. After birth, he was raised by his father who brought him up as a human. But then the “little peoples” gave to Obadaya magical things that gave him the power to turn into the Serpent and rule the Earth. After the Serpent’s death, these things were returned to their owners. And the Serpent was, of course, betrayed and killed. It was humans, of course.

Sugar and dry jam, for which Kyiv is well known, have a rich red color. It is said that they look like this because of the Serpent’s blood that drained into Dnipro River and seeped into the soil. Queasy-sweet goodies have magical properties, they return youth and health to the body (if you drink well-diluted “juice of life“: wine plus dry jam) and it is a strong hallucinogen-euphoric (if you use dry jam in its pure form). Kyiv thrives on the drug trade, that’s right.

Taratorina writes fantasy, and she’s aware of it. She creates alternative worlds at all levels – from religion to everyday life, like what each species are drinking at dinner (by the way: field meetings of Carpathian mavkas left Chinese tea far behind). And for a reader not to forget, in the conventions of which genre he exists at present, the author of Lazarus occasionally reminds us of this. Surprisingly deep wardrobe pops up, saying “Hi” to C.S. Lewis, then a journey around catacombs will lead us to the worlds of Neil Gaiman, or in cameras will settle down demons that quickly sketch what they see, emigrating from the world of Terry Pratchett. Such allusions don’t overload Lazarus but keep a reader focused. One of the best winking-tips is connected with the plot, where the case of the risen dead in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra is investigated. From place to place, there will be references to the history of Simeon Stylites, whose miracles (connected with healing) are read simply as a biography of an ancient necromancer.

Taratorina writes an alternative history, and she’s aware of it. So, this story is not without allusions and reminders. For example, it’s worth mentioning the suppressed Vampires’ uprising of 1863-1864. Let this frivolity be forgiven by the Polish rebels, because, I remind you, in this world vampires are among the elite of the elite. The war of empire with Chechen demons dates back to the years of Caucasian wars of 1860-1864. And in order to correlate the pogroms against supernaturals in 1892 with the Jewish pogroms in the Kyiv region, there is no need for the magic ball of Madame Solokha (this fortuneteller-frog is incredibly wonderful background character).

However, Taratorina also writes the detective story!

Six criminal cases, at first glance, are not connected with anything except the incoming Moscow detective, who solves crimes of various scales. The first glance is wrong: the five murders clearly lead to the sixth case, which will explain the hierarchy and the system of a thought out world of Lazarus and lead the novel to a logical fantasy finale. In the fantasy, it seems there are only two logical finals: the end of the world and the last battle before the probable end of the world. Waiting for the happy-end in the novel, which will end in the spring of 1914, that is, just before the beginning of the First World War, would be naive. But I insist that you should give it a try.

The protagonist of Lazarus is that very investigator. His name is Oleksandr Petrovych Tyuryn (at the beginning of the novel). He is a lieutenant colonel and official on special orders, a human (at the beginning of the novel). Tyuryn is 33 years old, and it may be obvious even without this hint, and not only because of the obsessive symbolism of the “age of Christ”. But also because now I have to expose part of his novel life: the lieutenant colonel will have to die and resurrect in Lazarus. Actually, Lazarus is an indication of his biological species, the so-called “resurrected ones“, but very rare in the boundaries humanoids.

Tyuryn has an assistant, local policeman Topchiy Parfentiy Kindratovych – a passionate fan of sunflower seeds and not such a big fool, whom he pretends to be. In the end, here everyone are not whom they pretend to be, literally every character of the novel has a secret somewhere deep inside.

So. We have five crimes. Case № 1. The body of a human boy who was raised by vodyanyks was found. The boy was literally gutted. One of the vodyanyks is suspected. Case № 2. In the Duma, obviously forged document had appeared which, according to all verifications, is genuine. At the same time, a dead devil that fulfilled desires for a soul was found. Cases are connected. And сherchez la femme. Case № 3. Someone kills human widows. One poisons them with vitriol oil. Women are connected by abysmal hatred for supernaturals, childlessness and the fact that they were seen before their death in the company of their missing husbands. Perelesnyk is a suspect who can acquire the shape of anyone and has sexual power over women. Case № 4. A miracle was recorded in the Pechersk Lavra: a monk, who spent his life to find a treasure, for his church, of course, resurrected. This miracle strongly resembles the fact that the monk was turned into a vampire, which is strictly forbidden. Suspicion falls on the recluse monk that belongs supernaturals. Case № 5. Dmitry Bogrov just had killed Stolypin. On the frescos of Stritenska Church appeared drawings in which one can find Bogrov’s classmates from the first Kyiv gymnasium. Subsequently, boys from the frescoes began to disappear or die one after another. The investigation suspected the work of a totalitarian cult under the cover of a political party.

Pieces of material evidence in all these cases are suspiciously reminiscent of artifacts that can summon the Serpent. And the main characters start forming an ideal group for the ritual. So here comes a time for the case № 6, in which Tyuryn will have to be not only an investigator.

A detective story, fantasy, alternative history… It just can’t be without a love story! It’s true there is a love story here, even a few of them. All erotic-romantic relationships in this world are between species, it’s simply impossible not to notice. A witch and a man. Devil and mavka. Lazarus and a human. Snake-lady and a man. Perelesnyk and a woman. Vodyanyk and mermaid. Werewolf and sunflower seeds. This move in the novel is more than erotic fantasies “that one prefers sex with mavkas” (there’s also plenty of this). Moreover, the relationships between children and parents also reach the issue of contacts between species. Perelesnyks brought up by humans. Humans brought up by Vodyanyks. Snake-headed people brought up by humans. And the other things that never end well, by the way, products of such pedagogical experiments are either criminals or victims of crimes. Actually, only zombies, vampires and werewolves procreate in an unnatural way (through the bite), that’s why these three very species are strictly forbidden to reproduce. For example, a child of a raped mavka is legitimate, and a new-born vampire is not. Therefore it’s not worth being surprised that all heroes of Lazarus have problems with their parents: if one doesn’t make child sacrifice, then a kid will be brought up as a killer maniac.

In this world, where in fact everything is determined by the origin that is documented and legally controlled, nobody wants to be the one he or she was born. And at the same time, everybody’s chattering in a nonstop mode about their historical purpose, which each of them has to fulfill. Humanoids pretend being humans and it can be understood because humans have a higher social status in this society. However, in “Lazarus” there are a lot of humans who pretend to be a “scum”! A world where everyone is tired of being himself? – Almost. In the novel supernaturals have to prove their necessity legally, it seems that humans in this world are needed automatically. Really?

In the book, there are two main “half-bloods”: Tyuryn, alive and dead, and the Serpent Obadaya, a human and inhuman. Not all half-bloods are princes, but they will bring problems permanently. So, the universe of Harry Potter is also present here, for good reason one of the heroes will be named Voldemar Stepanovych (vile fellow, by the way). But we were talking about supernatural kids from mixed marriages. In one of the final moments of the novel, Tyuryn will name the Serpent a “historical anomaly“. Why historical and not biological, for example?  I think that’s because of the last peaceful year of 1913.

That crossroad date is also the beginning of the rapid modernization in Europe, the revision of the informational boundaries of national communities (which will soon re-examine the state-political boundaries with such a malicious irony).

Good books that can entertain and generate interest are re-read. Books to which you can put simple questions and don’t have from them simple answers are remembered. The question for Lazarus: who has the right to tell me who I am? Do not expect that this issue will soon lose its relevance. So, that’s why the book by Svitlana Taratorina will remain open for numerous re-readings…

By Hanna Ulyura

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