Yevheniia Kononenko. Prague Chimaera. Lviv: Anetta Antonenko Publishing house, 2019. 224 p.
Twelve stories from the Prague Chimaera will not impress by anything unexpectedly new but will console those who love Kononenko’s prose and missed the low note stories.
The foreword refers to the famous essay by Virginia Woolf A Room of One’s Own. The one where the writer tells about the importance for a woman-writer to have her own room. To have the room where you won’t be disturbed, and your inspiration won’t be hushed. Kononenko doesn’t seek to make a metaphor on the dwelling subject in this case. She tells about a particular “Kyiv registration”, “square meters” another “housing issues”. Enjoy: the majority of plots on this topic in Prague Chimaera will need now a historical-contextual commentary. The mobility, which we already got used to enjoying, is a dream for Kononenko’s character, and sometimes – an ill fantasy.
The story “A Woman And A Man At The Bottom Of The City”. They both live in a happy marriage. They have a nice living room and a cosy bedroom, a tiny flat is enough for two because two of them are barren. And here he finds another woman but she has the problems with home and children who are growing fast. The exchange lasts for almost a year, a man settles down in a living room and turns in into a bachelor’s den. Tired of the attempts to move apart, these two decide to restore the marriage, it’s easier. She, betrayed, cries aloud into his dirty blankets that weren’t changed for a year. Though down in the dumps yet together. Will pheromones do work for a lazy realtor? Marital fidelity can still be measured in square meters per capita. Like the bills for central heating, for example. And to go broke trying to pay them on time.
The story “One-Room Flat”. A lonely woman with a child takes an astray thrifty man. He makes a luxurious repairment and disappears. She is looking for him for long and when finds she learns that he doesn’t love her and lived with her because he didn’t have a home and that repairment was his payment for love and care. What a thrill for her now to retell this story! No, she doesn’t have questions, she has the opportunity to comfortably suffer till the death. And in unison – the story “A Lilac Dress”: a reach friend gives her poor lonely friend a prostitute man for the personal console. The first story is about grace, the second is about disgrace. What is the difference between them, really?
The room of one’s own home in this book reflects the claims of heroes to be protected. Any passage room here is a shelter, salvation. And there are chimaeras of Notre-Dame which scream: We demand a shelter! Kononenko’s women are nomads, they can’t sit at one place since they are driven out of their own dream room. The dream came true but there is still no calmness. The weariness of lost dreams came. Every story here is a Bildungsroman constricted to the size of an exemplary novel in which the female character grows up and changes but fails to grow out of these miserable meters of Kyivan studio apartments.
“Something literally mundane interferes in a divine unity of woman and man. First, this is an apartment. Even if united in heavens, in the earthly life they must unite in some earthly room, the presence or absence of which creates an asymmetry of relationships. Or at all, it replaces the divine unity by solving the problem of the roof overhead.” Divine unity is not about the apartment but about life there.
The story “Paris Chimaeras” is chimaeric in fact. Scholar Zhanna studies chimaeras in the poetry of Gérard de Nerval, scientific research helps to meet a Paris man who is good at the concepts and even claims he is more than two hundred years old. The woman has a ready wit, she knows that chimaeras not only writhe from the sufferings but also clown around those who believed in their chimaeric sufferings. So she agrees to meet in person when she arrives in Paris. Not like her colleagues-francophones to haunt a potential foreigner-husband. Virtually like an adventuress. From the depths of an elite apartment, a rare monster approaches her: a small, hunchbacked, lame, with incredibly appalling facial expressions creature. The woman flees with all her might. Because the theory of literature shouldn’t be confused with the marital bed.
Who this creature is, in fact, doesn’t matter – good makeup plus a bad sense of humour or the magical space burst and let the ghost here. It means who exactly she saw. The mention about alchemy emerges several times there but the meeting should have become a virtually alchemic marriage. But it became the meeting of two monsters. Actually, Gérard de Nerval is known for that his poetical elegies can’t be told apart from political satires. His most famous book is La Damnation de Faust. Kononenko also makes Faust plot (the character is invited three times, by the way). Her Faust woman lacked the courage to go under Mephistopheles’s terms.
This story is about that the harmony can’t be reached by merging male and female in one “original broth”. Because the story is not about the relationship with a man. A chimaeric face of a dwarf follows another horrible face: “A chimaeric face of a recently deceased mother”. Here is the one with whom the merging must have happened. This is the story about the relationship between a bossy mother and a weak daughter. Once the mother interfered into her relationship with a man, the woman remained lonely, nobody will get the philosopher’s stone through the act of coupling. At least there is an awesome apartment in the centre which was saved from the encroachment. Chimaeras are clowning, it’s true. And the mother resurrects in the person of an ugly immortal dwarf.
The life in Kononenko is a stupid eternity where you are chased by dwarfs. Traumatic monsters and unprocessed reincarnations. What chance, being an immigrant in America, to accidentally meet her ex-husband from Kyiv? In such a reality – 100%. What chance that in the company of three married couples one single woman is a lover to all the three married men? In such a reality – 100%. These original broths are cooked from the bones spoilt by the rotten exitance.
The story “Prague Chimaera”. A woman scientist arrives in Prague to participate in a conference and decides to stay in a city for a couple of days. The decision is not well-pondered: she is on a tight budget, she has no place to live in. At least, she has Prague! So she roams around the city, comes around a cafe and meets there her cousin from Moscow. Once they were close when a Kyivan was sent to Moscow after the explosion at Chernobyl, later their routes separated and here they are: in the overcrowded Prague. The sisters are called Marichka and Masha, we’ve got the hint at Doppelgänger. The hint at the catastrophe, too.
Masha rents an apartment where a chimaera from the neighbouring house peeks in the windows, a grandfather clock noisily, terribly noisily, strikes in the living room. Yet in that apartment, there is a closed room, to which Marichka is forbidden. Masha leaves the city for several days, leaving her sister face-to-face with reminiscent of their youth and this taboo. You got the hint at the fairy tale plot about the transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead. And it’s clear what Marichka does on the spot: she goes to the secret room – the door is closed behind her, she is trapped. And the thought comes to mind that the door must open when a chimaera in front is ablaze with moonlight and the father clock strikes the midnight. She has time to analyze herself.
Imagined? What would you do? Marichka begins to dance. The women before this (being drunk, of course) recollected their love affairs. The one was married, the other, too – both marriages failed. The one was desperately in love, the other was, too. By the way, they were in love with the same fella, ex-classmate. Masha dated him, Marichka danced with him once. And while Masha rushes to the classmates gathering, where there will be that man too, Marichka dances again in the closed room: “And first in the lifetime, she felt something chimaerically-incredible. I didn’t fell in love then, hear, Lizel? But it was then when I felt how great it could be in the boy’s embraces. But I understood that feeling and could explain it far earlier. We danced like this: Marichka flies around the room, putting the hands on the shoulders of an imagined gentleman… It’s eleven”. Sexual arousal which Maricha recollects and experiences repeatedly – this is what she has to revive in memory to become free. To restart the process of becoming a woman. Lizel is that smiling chimaera, named after Mona Liza, the embodiment of fleeting femininity. It’s midnight, the room is closed. The storyline of counter-Cinderella ends: the pumpkin is just about to become a carriage, a peed room (the traces of Masha’s former presence) – a ball hall, a statue – a handsome prince.
This therapeutic fairy tale is about how old fantasies become real fears. And that it is easier to live with fantasies: “It’s better to live with old fears than with new courage”. And how many women are there in the story – three (Masha, Marichka and Lizel) or one? Lizel sits on the head of the frowning stone man (Ave prince!). Are there women in this story or feminity is an outhouse of the sexual feeling, brought by the male invasion? But who knows, the door opened, the reminiscent passed away. And Marichka, fortunately, has a return ticket home. Lizel is the same as Jezebel, the same as “dishonour”. Feminity in Kononenko’s world is always a chimaeric journey, but unlikely with a happy end.
Prague Chimaera is a subtle psychological picture which doesn’t tend to be symbolically-emblematic prose, the best story in a collection, definitely.
A woman plus life plus home: the joining of the things that can’t be joined, the result of which terrifies and amuses at the same time. And the book turned out to be a good one, it’s true.