The stories that shaped Ukraine

In Babel’s stories, Odessa is presented with both affection and humour. It is, he wrote in 1916, the “most charming of cities in the Russian Empire… where the living is light and easy.” Its diversity is shown in “steamers from Newcastle, Cardiff, Marseille and Port Said; there are Negroes, Englishmen, Frenchmen and Americans.” But on the other side of society, the “powdered wives” of the city’s “plump and ridiculous bourgeoisie… succumb to the passionate caresses of temperamental students of medicine and law.” Overall, Babel adds playfully, “the reader will say, ‘It sounds like Odessa is a city like any other, and you, sir, are simply biased in the extreme.'”

In fact, this cynicism and self-mockery is perfectly in keeping with what the Ukraine-born novelist Józef Wittlin in 1946 called the “abhorrence of solemnity” and “dislike of all manner of pomp” in his beloved city of Lviv. Like Babel, he adored his city’s diverse, colourful population: “an extraordinary mixture of nobility and roguery, wisdom and imbecility, poetry and vulgarity.” The Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera identified this as a quality more widely in central Europe: its people, he said, “represent the wrong side of history. They are its victims and outsiders. It is this disabused view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the ‘nonserious spirit’ that mocks grandeur and glory.”

Does this “nonserious spirit” apply to Ukraine too? “I think so,” says Dralyuk. “It’s a country with an innate sense of humility, a great sense of humour, and a very healthy self-regard. The valorising of the marginal, the wily, the trickster figure, the person who makes it by hook or by crook” – the sort we see in Babel’s stories – “is ingrained in the culture. And what makes Ukrainian literature special is that it treats those figures with a great deal of nuance. I think it’s part and parcel of the Ukrainian mentality – there’s a wryness to the Ukrainian frame of mind.”

A turbulent century

Making a similar point is Ukraine-born poet and translator Nina Murray, whom BBC Culture also spoke to about the country’s literature. “There’s a long-standing humorous tradition [in Lviv], because it’s always been a mixed city where different classes of people made fun of each other. But also the Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem is from Lviv and he was a great humorist. I’m biased because I’m from there [too]!”

Contemporary Ukrainian writers too share the “nonserious spirit.” Dralyuk identifies the writer Andriy Lyubka’s 2015 novel Carbide as a timely example: “It’s just wonderful. It’s one of these bandit stories, where a history teacher decides to dig a tunnel under the Ukrainian border and sneak all 40 million Ukrainians into the EU.”

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