The stories that reveal the soul of Ukraine

In Tales of Babel, Odessa is presented with affection and humor. It is, he wrote in 1916, “the most charming of the cities of the Russian Empire…where life is light and easy”. Its diversity is manifested in “the liners of Newcastle, Cardiff, Marseilles and Port Said; there are Negroes, English, French and Americans”. But on the other side of society, the “powdered wives” of the “chubby and ridiculous bourgeoisie… succumb to the passionate caresses of capricious medical and law students”. All in all, Babel adds playfully, “the reader will say, ‘Odessa looks like a city like any other, and you, sir, are just plain biased to the extreme.'”

In fact, this cynicism and self-mockery fits perfectly with what the Ukrainian-born novelist Józef Wittlin called in 1946 “the horror of solemnity” and the “aversion to all forms of pomp” in his beloved city of Lviv. Like Babel, he adored the motley and colorful population of his city: “an extraordinary mixture of nobility and hoodlums, of wisdom and imbecility, of poetry and vulgarity”. French-Czech novelist Milan Kundera identified this as a quality more prevalent in Central Europe: its people, he says, “represent the wrong side of history. They are his victims and his strangers. It is this wry view of history that is the source of their culture, of their wisdom, of the “unserious spirit” that scoffs at greatness and glory.”

Does this “unserious spirit” also apply to Ukraine? “I think so,” says Dralyuk. “It is a country with an innate sense of humility, a great sense of humor and a very healthy self-esteem. The valorization of the marginal, the cunning, the trickster figure, the person who does it willy-nilly” – the genre we see in Babel stories – “is rooted in the culture. And what makes Ukrainian literature special is that it treats these characters with a lot of nuance. I think that this is an integral part of the Ukrainian mentality – there is an irony in the Ukrainian mindset.”

A turbulent century

Ukrainian-born poet and translator Nina Murray, who BBC Culture also spoke to about the country’s literature, makes a similar point. “There is 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 comedian. I’m biased cause I’m from there [too]!”

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

Helen D. Jessen