Ukrainian literature has struggled through centuries, oppressed and censored by autocratic regimes.
The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union banned the Ukrainian language, seized books, eliminated cultural organizations and politically repressed those who dared to disobey.
Thanks to dedicated writers, Ukrainian literature grew to be rich in genres and themes. And since Ukraine gained independence, the development of literary writing has been moving onwards and upwards.
Historical intricacies made it difficult for the world to discover even a handful of the best books written in Ukraine. But thanks to new translations and digital technologies, introducing oneself to Ukrainian prose and poetry has never been easier.
The Kyiv Post picked some of the best works of Ukrainian literature available in English.
“The Forest Song”
Lesya Ukrainka, 1911
This fairy tale play, known in Ukrainian as “Lisova Pisnya,” is a classic of local literature. Considered one of the foundational works for future Ukrainian fantasy, the poetry play is often described as an anthem to nature and love, purity and beauty.
It’s the work of one of Ukraine’s most prominent writers, Lesya Ukrainka, whose real name was Larysa Kosach. The author wrote it inspired by her own observations of nature and the local folklore she explored as a child, ever since she first heard about various creatures in Ukrainian mythology. She secretly ran to the forest at night in hopes to meet mavka, a female mythological creature similar to a mermaid.
Mavka is the center character of “The Forest Song,” which portrays the complexities of an unlikely love between the forest creature and young man Lukash.
The author puts a sharp philosophical conflict at the forefront of the story: the incompatibility of a person’s high vocation with the humiliating, slavish conditions of their daily life. The play praises the unprecedented strength and grandeur of a free man.
Get a hardcover copy of “The Forest Song” in English on Amazon for nearly $30 or read online at www.sites.utoronto.ca/elul/English/Ukrainka/Ukrainka-ForestSong.pdf.
“The Hunters and the Hunted”
Ivan Bahrianyi, 1944
One of the most fascinating adventure books in the history of Ukrainian literature, “The Hunters and the Hunted” was initially published in Ukrainian under the name “Tiger Trappers.”
It is a multifaceted book, but first and foremost, it’s an expression of protest against human rights violations, portraying the striking tragedy of the Ukrainian people under the totalitarian Soviet regime. Ivan Bahriany portrays the life and traditions of Ukrainians exiled to the northern taiga. The plot follows Gregory and Natalka, whose love is put to the test.
The author shows the impact of Joseph Stalin’s terror on the fate of an individual and depicts the cruelty of the ruling elite’s servants. The novel is partly autobiographical — Bahrianyi himself was repressed for trumped-up charges of anti-Soviet activities. The original text of “The Hunters and the Hunted” was seized by authorities, but Bahrianyi rewrote it from memory after emigrating to Germany.
Although the novel has a specific time frame, it raises many eternal issues: good and evil, life and death, justice and punishment, moral choice, will to live and purpose, the relationship between a human and nature, family relations and, of course, love.
For the immeasurable impact on the Ukrainian culture, the book received the Shevchenko National Prize, the country’s highest state prize for the works of art.
Read online at www.diasporiana.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/books/19590/file.pdf.
“The Grand Harmony”
Bohdan Ihor Antonych, 1967
Bohdan Ihor Antonych is one of the most prominent and offbeat poets in the Ukrainian history. His exquisite inventive poetry is believed to have influenced generations of the future artists in Ukraine.
In the collection of poems “The Grand Harmony,” Antonych celebrates the unity of nature and man — a dominant topic in his works. The poet often compares himself to the animals and plants of his land, seeing himself and the whole human race as a small atom of the planet. Antonych’s peculiar religious views are often compared to the Buddhists’ interpretation of eternity: after six reincarnations in plant and animal forms, a human soul becomes a star in a constellation.
Get “The Grand Harmony” on Amazon for $6–27 or read online at www.scribd.com/book/425628888/The-Grand-Harmony.
Yuri Andrukhovych, 1992
Yuri Andrukhovych is a modern writer, whose style stands out with its unrestrained irony, allusion, parody and black humor.
His postmodern novel “The Moscoviad” portrays a day in the life of a student of Moscow Literary Institute set in what appears to be the 1980–1990s. The dormitory, in which he lives, turns out to be a coven of writers from around the world who fritter their lives away, drinking, frolicking and exploring the crumbling city around them.
Using travesty and phantasmagoria, the author shows the devastation and emptiness that prevailed in the post-Soviet society in the waning days of the Soviet era.
The reader will be gripped by the depiction of grotesque and surreal rumors swirling around the forthcoming collapse of the Soviet empire. But the work is also full of realistic details of the time like huge lines to stores and countless rallies.
Get “The Moscoviad” on Amazon for $6–14.
“Sweet Darusya: A Tale Of Two Villages”
Maria Matios, 2004
Another winner of the Shevchenko National Prize, this novel portrays the pre-war and post-war periods of the Soviet occupation of western Ukraine.
At the center of the book, contemporary writer Maria Matios put the unfortunate fate of Darusya and her parents, who were terrorized by NKVD officers in the remote mountain village of Cheremoshne. The novel follows all the troubles of the family thrown in a whirl of cruel historical events, mixed with contrasting picturesque descriptions of local life and customs.
Combining indelible human evil with indestructible good at the same time, the story highlights the importance of solid family connections, as it condemns the horrific methods of totalitarian regimes.
Get “Sweet Darusya: A Tale Of Two Villages” on Amazon for $16.
Serhiy Zhadan, 2014
“Mesopotamia” is an award-winning book of one of Ukraine`s most acclaimed post-independence writers Serhiy Zhadan.
The collection of stories and poems is set in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where Zhadan has lived most of his life, calling the piece his most personal book. “Mesopotamia” transfers the story of Babylon onto the life of Kharkiv, where through the years, characters fight for their right to be heard and understood.
The book conveys the culture of the Kharkiv life through philosophical digressions, fantastic images, exquisite metaphors and humor. The author touches on the subjects of admission and betrayal, escape and return, tenderness and cruelty.
Get “Mesopotamia” on Amazon for $14.
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