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Books in Translation: Ukraine

By Niina Bailey, Toby Smollet and Kate Williams


On the 28 June each year, Ukraine celebrates Constitution Day. This year will inevitably be different from usual as the Russian invasion continues, however we wanted to mark the occasion and show our support by reviewing three books by Ukrainian authors. They are very different from each other, but each showcases what Ukraine has to offer. We hope you find some new books to enjoy.


Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. Translated by George Bird. Published by Vintage in 2001


Death and the Penguin follows an aspiring writer, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov, in post-Soviet Kyiv. The novel starts with Viktor getting a job as an obituary writer for a local newspaper. Unusually, the subjects of his obituaries are still alive when he writes them, and he is tasked with looking for high-profile people to write about. Viktor is a very lonely man and at the beginning of the novel his only friend is his pet penguin Misha, hence the name. During the novel, Viktor’s social circle expands, and strange things start happening because of his job. He soon realises he is tangled up in something nefarious which is more than he can handle.


The strongest aspect of the novel is the relationship between Viktor and Misha. It is clear to see how much Viktor cares about the penguin and even when other people enter his life, his priority is still Misha. In the end, he would do anything for his penguin. The novel has surrealist elements, best represented by the presence of Misha. The contrast between the death in the novel and Viktor’s life with his penguin, which is often quite mundane, is very well crafted and makes for an interesting read.


Death and the Penguin was originally published in 1996 in Russian, despite Kurkov being Ukrainian. It has since become Kurkov’s most popular work and it has been translated into over thirty languages. It has a sequel, Penguin Lost.


Your Ad Could Go Here: Stories by Oksana Zabuzhko. Translated by Amazon Crossing in 2020


This short story collection contains a wide variety of different stories, which all tie back to the central theme of female relationships. They mostly narrate mundane, everyday situations; Zabuzkho writes about losing a pair of gloves, tennis lessons, and going to watch an opera performance. Despite this, the writer uses these simple plotlines to comment on wider issues relating to Ukrainian politics, history, and feminism.


When reading the stories, we get the sense that we are accessing the author’s inner thoughts and feelings. Her prose is full of meandering observations, and she uses long sentences spanning pages. While this creates intimacy between writer and reader, it can also be quite difficult to follow her train of thought. Her style of writing certainly took me some time to get used to (I would recommend starting with the shorter stories such as ‘The Tennis Instructor’ and ‘Your Ad Could Go Here’), but if you are willing to put in the work, you will be met by beautifully written and thought-provoking stories that read almost like fairy tales. This rambling style is also interesting because, as stated in Kirkus Reviews, “She takes up space […] and allows her mostly female protagonists to do the same.” Thus, the writer is making a fundamentally feminist choice by allowing both her own and her female protagonists’ thoughts and feelings to be heard.


Hardly Ever Otherwise by Maria Matios. Translated by Yuri Tkacz. Published by Glagoslav Publications in 2012


​​I rarely enjoy historical fiction. The way that old contexts, stories, people are repurposed to tell a contemporary story often feel ill-fitting, the narrative link somewhat forced. Hardly Ever Otherwise does not suffer from this at all. Present and past fit seamlessly, without the historical context ever being overshadowed or ignored.


Based in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, towards the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it follows the (often tragic) lives of the villagers. These lives are filled with secrets and fatal flaws that inexorably draw the characters towards each other, into one massive collision at the base of the mountains. At the climax, comes the backstories for our cast – we end with the past. Much of the conflict can be easily linked to modern dilemmas; the ownership of land, brotherhood and betrayal (and revenge), the brutal truth of what is required to stay alive.


The villagers are not immediately likeable – the novel opens with Kyrylo, a wealthy farmer, suggesting that the family look to aid his daughter-in-law with her pregnancy. His wife is unamused, bemoaning the fact that she never received such help during her difficulties with pregnancy. If the lack of sympathy towards her daughter-in-law seems callous, so too does Kyrylo’s misogyny (“Stop nattering and contradicting me, woman!”) and yet by the end of the book, the past makes sympathy for the characters easy. It is not offered as a justification, simply an explanation: we are where we are now because of who we were in the past.


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