Wednesday, 23 September

If there is such a word in Ukrainan, certainly

Volodymyr Rafeienko: Mondegreen. Songs of Love and Death.

Chernivtsi: MERIDIAN CZERNOWITZ, 2019. 192 p.

Never has she loved her stepdaughter, so she ordered to take her into the forest. The girl is sitting in a forest hut. Suddenly a mare’s head chuckles and knuckles at the door. It asks to carry it over the threshold – she did. It asks to put it on the furnace – she did. It asks to feed it – she did. Then a girl wormed herself into one mare’s ear and from another – she came out beautiful and rich. That’s what people say.

Have you heard everything well?


Are you sure?

Mondegreen from the title of Volodymyr Rafeienko’s new novel is something that is misheard, except the perception that turns the wrongly heard word into the sound of it, gives meaningless the meaning. And a fairy tale about a mare’s head in Mondegreen – is an added content here. It was, to tell you the truth, about other horses. “Let’s say, John the Apostle. Well, really, old man, if you’d already seen in the dream these fiery horses that arrived to bomb Syria, why didn’t you write about it? Like, fine people, what can I tell you about Armageddon.”

And now when everything seems to be heard rightly, let’s knuckle and chuckle, and search how to find the way to other’s ear for full transformation.

It’s Rafeienko’s first novel in Ukrainian. It would be just a replica of a successful annotation or a sentence in future textbooks from Ukrainian literature at the beginning of the millennium. But everything is more serious: he didn’t just write the first book in Ukrainian but reflected the process of changing the language, changing the identity.

Gabriel Bohdanovich (Gaba) Gabinsky is a forced migrant, with the onset of the war he leaves the occupied Donetsk and moves to Kyiv. He becomes an accomplice in the vegetable department of the Beautiful and Useful supermarket. He begins to master a new language and new transitional states. He makes friends with Petro Petsei Petrovych, who tries to bring Gaba together with his niece or with Ole Lukøje’s nephew. (These games with names also seem to be misheard things but this is such a postponed hello from the times of Valeriia Narbikova, one would cry from nostalgia but the Mare’s head forbids).

The niece is finally found: the girl turns out to be smart, witty and condescending, she recommends, of course, a vegetable macho to visit a psychiatrist (because Gaba always talks to Mare’s head that only he sees), but in the end she decides to do her own sexual therapy on a voluntary basis. Or rather no. There, in Donetsk, Gabriel leaves a complicated love story: senior lecturer seduced a student, a student seduced a senior lecturer – the war started and one day a funny woman dissolved in the muddy waters of Kalmius. Or rather no. Her name was Sosipatra. And probably she was killed at the beginning of the war. And perhaps that Gaba is not a migrant, but a fugitive from justice – he has avenged for the death of a mistress, and he is now on the wanted list yet he secretly shots disguised separatists down in Kyiv. Or rather no. Gaba sleeps next to his wife, and he dreams of this life, misunderstood and misheard. Senior lecturer’s wife wakes up and calms down her stupid husband. But that’s not for sure.

“In essence, Gogol is to blame for everything,” for short.

In the plot there is a side story, – it functions as a commentary to the story of Gaba and Sosipatra. (Terrifically strong fragment of the novel!). The compiler of the Russian-language Kama Sutra of Donetsk edition for thirsting for new sensations started to comprehend freedom in the 1990s via the sexual freedom, tired of writing and adding new scenarios, he finds himself in bed with secretary Liena. There is no wife in the city, there is no sense of life but, still, there is Liena. And in the one summer morning, the Compiler returns to an empty apartment where he “cries long and uglily” on his own. And Liena gets married and gets forgotten him. She incidentally remembers him when at the beginning of the war, her husband enters the “militia”, and the Compiler is dead for a long time – on the pro-Ukrainian march he receives deadly beatings from men in the balaclava. And only sex guide is left and unshared memories about ugly loneliness and imagined freedom. “She reads and cries. This is a treasured thing – Kama Sutra during the war.”

This is a valuable “Boccaccio-esque” novel – funny and terrifying, that is a usual thing for Rafaeienko. It is just about the main thing in Mondegreen love stories because they are all about loneliness, the lack of time, the memory and irrelevance. In love, Rafaeienko’s characters don’t unite but refute each other. By the way, this is how the realities interact in his prose (the author multiplies them by love) – synthesis is fundamentally impossible here, this is surrealism as it is (not irony, – only sur). In Rafaeienko, love doesn’t last but slowly glimmers; the same happens to realities: the confrontation between them is not depicted and the blank space is shown between two or three versions of reality.

“Idiocy, brightness and otherworldliness – these are the three butterflies on which his love for women has always been based.” In the novel, there are many direct and hidden quotations, allusions, homage, reminiscences – Gaba’s inner opponent, whose words are usually italicized and bracketed, is a well-read face with a good associative memory. Anything can launch here the process of uncontrolled and reflex quoting (that is, an illusion, of course: all quotes in the novel are in right places). And those butterflies-seducers break through the erotic-romantic confession of Gaba once and again: “Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly,” a known parable starts. “Who is a butterfly?” is more important here than “Who dreams?”. And Tao wisdom is nothing to do with it. Plunging into the dream where the boundaries are vague between the subject and object, here self-oblivion is ideal, with the emphasis on “oblivion”. This is a conscious attempt to escape from external influence but I’ll remind: Chuang Chou quotes here are Gaba’s inner censor, his very memory – not even individual one but the memory of the family and heritage (that Mare’s head is infernal).

How consciously forget that you don’t remember? How-how-how? Here you are: idiotically, brightly and netherwordly! And you know that the carefree fluttering of butterflies is not carefree: it is connected to the rituals of reproduction, that is, just the continuation of the species. “Do you give a damn whose kinsmen Homo Sapiens are?” – Fair enough, you do!

The main issue of the novel appears in all pristine beauty – the question of purposefulness. Who and what the things that happen to us depend on? Our vision of reality influences the reality itself which we produce. Can we create a new identity by force? The only censor of reality in Rafeienko’s world is a memory which rules even the space of dreams. At the end of the novel, when a PhD in an uncomfortable apartment in the Kyiv suburb wakes up from an almost catatonic sleep and asks his wife, exhausted by deadly fatigue, didn’t he accidentally work in a supermarket and didn’t he love another woman. It’s important in this scene – he wakes up.

Such a Kama Sutra for butterflies supplemented by impotent we have. A thing that is urgently needed during the war.

The plot of the novel really breaks down into a few erotic-romantic clusters that interact as a false reading of each other. Gaba and Olia (the plot is sort of “a killer and a prostitute read Gospel together”). Gaba and Sosipatra (this is the plot ala “Carmen and Don José are always under heavy drugs”). Gaba and Snavduliia (and this is “Kostiantyn Levin makes round in a cosy family estate”). And finally, Gaba and Mare’s head. The last story is not affectionate and not pretentious (this is not an estimate but an indication of style). The story about Mare’s head is worth a novel. It is worth a good novel that is Mondegreen. And there is no place for misheard, so we listen carefully because this is the quintessence of the novel. “Well, if, of course, there is such a word in Ukrainian – quintessence”. Quintessence, by the way, isn’t the fifth element and not concentrate but dark energy which fastens the expansion of the universe. Perhaps, we would lack this word.

Mare’s head – a heroine of an old fairy-tale who takes the functions of Gaba’s guide into the space of new for him language. In childhood, he was told that fairy-tale and it still sounds in his head in Ukrainian. The reality of language becomes similar to the reality of dream and delusions so that we are told later: the reality of language is the space of distorted memory. Not misheard but misreproduced. Now he himself thinks and speaks the language which was spoken before by magical creatures from horror fairy-tales. For example, KB (it should be KG, Gaba agrees, but instead it is KB; I would remain Security Committee).

And Mare-KB appears for the first time at the moment of immersion in the Kyiv metro (transparent limb metaphor) but it is accompanied by a supposedly unnecessary quotation from the novel by Mykhailo Stelmakh. In the quotation, the source itself weights – “The Big Family”. KB is a memory not about fairy tales which Gaba was told by his granny but about experience and family stories which he wasn’t told. In the anamnesis of “an ordinary immigrant” – “ordinary” victim experience of Ukrainian who seeks for identification with the nation, attachment to which he now dartingly and painfully process in “the city of sacred Ukrainian force”.

The 1920s, Donetsk region. The story of a grandfather on mather’s side. Once upon a time, there was a couple, they were rich, worked hard, gave birth to five children. Suddenly prodrazvyorstka was launched, they broke into their house and started to drive away goods and food in a cart harnessed by an old horse. The whole day that cart was pulled around a village. On the fourth day, they finished. They kicked the spouses out the house (the woman had already lost her mind) and shot in front of their five children, the eldest of whom was six. Two brothers gripped each other: Oleksii and Ivan; so they lived, gripped to each other. Oleksii is Gabriel’s grandfather. Dead bodies were taken by the same cart. “An empty cart, harnessed by an old horse nicknamed Aleko, arrived the last. It wasn’t controlled so the horse returned to a dream every time on the call of a spirit”. The horse’s nickname was Aleko. (Pushkin’s Aleko is probably a stranger and an alien that terrorizes with love and kills in the name of love – incomprehensible and insensible. Sing to it, dead Zemfira, since the “songs” in the subtitle that appeared not accidentally).

This is Mare’s Head which returns to Gaba in uncontrolled nightmares of other people’s experiences which now have to become his own. (Aleko. Far away. But this all is too close, the only thing is to take over the threshold and to put on the furnace). The horse Aleko brings into the novel another quoted work – “Ballad of Captain’s Shadow” by Bohdan-Ihor Antonych; Aleko and Gaba sing this cruel romance because there are moments which must be paid high. Polyglot syndrome; Gaba always thinks about it. To take possession of someone else’s; he probably talks not only about language but also about memory. But why do five infants come to him only in the finale? Why does only Mare’s Head visit him within the course of the novel? And why do the old mad couple shot dead go silent forever? (who, oh my, are unlikely to be more than thirty!).

Language must be needful. Gaba always repeats this. Language is needful as much as memory is needful, which can’t be expressed by language. This is already KB which rectified that desperate linguist-positivist. “This mechanism works according to a communion pattern.” For this communion to happen someone’s flesh must be torn to pieces and eaten with devotion. The last sentence in the novel is also a quote: “Sleep, Jesus, sleep”. Famous Carol: a storkling, a miserable man, a seed, patience – these all are Savior’s names. Choose yourself God’s name according to your needs. It might be even Aleko if you heard it so.

Hanna Uliura

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