Go East Young Man

PARIS – JUNE 07: (FILE PHOTO) Bohumil Hrabal poses while in Paris,France on a promotional visit on the 7th of June 1995. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

England and Western Europe do not have a monopoly on great literature. I love prospecting for interesting writers from Eastern Europe. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I am Hungarian (and Czech and Slovak), and that I feel that the writers of the East have gotten short shrift from the American literary establishment.

I have just finished reading Bohumil Hrabal’s Why I Write? and Other Early Prose Pieces, which consists of his early work, much of which was circulated via samizdat, or underground typescript distribution to bypass strict censorship. There is a freshness to most of the stories within and a sharp attention to dialog as it is actually spoken by common people. Several whole stories consist of stream of consciousness ramblings of Hrabal’s Uncle Pepin, who goes on for pages shifting from one topic to another. Footnotes explain many of the obscure local references to Bars in Prague and people unknown outside of the Czech Republic.

From Ukraine, there is Andrey Kurkov, whose Death and the Penguin fills us in on the absurdity of life in Kiev. His Ukraine Diaries bring us up to date on the tensions with Putin’s Russia.

The former Soviet Union is another good source, such as the literary journalism from Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. I was appalled by her book of interviews on the Russian War in Afghanistan, called (in English) Zinky Boys. I also read Voices from Chernobyl, which gives a Russian perspective on that disaster.

Anna Politkovskaya’s criticisms of Putin cost her her life. She was murdered at her block of flats upon returning from grocery shopping. Her books on Chechnya (especially A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya) and Putin’s Russia earned her the enmity of Putin, who cynically staged a show trial of several stooges who probably didn’t have anything to do with her killing.

Every month I try to read at least one Eastern European book. Often, they are the best things I’ve read that month.

Meanwhile, Back in the Ukraine

Battle on January 10, 2014 at Kiev’s “Euromaidan”

Battle on January 10, 2014 at Kiev’s “Euromaidan”

The one Ukrainian author I have read is Andrey Kurkov, a Russian who lives in Kiev and considers himself Ukrainian. He is best known for three mystery novels, the first two of which feature a penguin named Mischa: Death and the Penguin, Penguin Lost, and The Case of the General’s Thumb.

During the 2013-2014 revolution that sent President Viktor Yanukovych to Russia requesting asylum from Putin, Kurkov kept a diary of daily events in Kiev, the Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. It was published in 2014 as Ukrainian Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev. His mystery novels have a wry sense of humor which also carries over to this diary:

Posters and signs have been put up all over the country with images showing that all Ukrainians, after the signature of the Association Agreement with the EU, will become homosexuals. Even in the metro, each time you take an escalator, you have to pass dozens of these posters. In Kiev, he propaganda campaign is considered laughable, but I am afraid that in the east and in the provinces, people will naively believe that universal conversion to homosexuality is the condition imposed by Europe on Ukraine for the signature of the treaty. (November 28, 2013)

And: “Yesterday, Parliament announced an open forum day. Everyone was given the chance to speak. Or, in other words, no one listened.” (February 5, 2014)

Ukrainian Author Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov

Ukrainian Author Andrey Yuryevich Kurkov

Since it declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine has had a succession of governments that could only be described as a combination of thuggery and rapine—in fact, pretty much the sort of governing we could expect from a Donald J. Trump. You can see in Kurkov’s penguin mysteries the dysfunctionality of Ukrainian politics at work. Now, in the diaries, we see Kurkov losing sleep whether he would be dragged out of his flat by security forces, tortured, and killed.

Fortunately for us, he wasn’t. I look forward for his other works to be translated from Russian to English.