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Beacons in the Darkness
A Trilogy of Selected Prose Fiction by Ivan Franko - Volume II
English translations of two Ukrainian-language novellas, published in 2006 in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the author's birth.
Uknown Waters (pp. 11-211)
Lel and Polel (pp. 213-430)
Ivan Franko, Ukraine’s greatest man of letters, was born in the county of Drohobych in Halychyna, Western Ukraine. The gifted son of a village blacksmith, he studied classical philology and Ukrainian language and literature at the University of Lviv, began work on his doctorate at the University of Chernivtsi in 1891, and completed it with distinction at the University of Vienna in 1893; however, because of his involvement in radical socialist movements for which he was imprisoned three times as a young man, he was denied a tenured appointment to the university in Lviv that now bears his name.
A man of prodigious talents and an indefatigable worker, his literary and scholarly output fills more than fifty volumes. He wrote lyrical and philosophical poetry, short stories, novellas, novels, and dramas; articles devoted to Ukrainian, Slavic, and Western European literary criticism, theory and history; studies pertaining to Ukrainian linguistics, folklore and ethnography; detailed analyses of old and medieval Ukrainian literature; and treatises in which he expounded his philosophical, sociological, political and economic points of view.
He served as editor and publisher of Ukrainian literary journals, and of Ukrainian, Polish, and German newspapers. A prolific translator, he worked with numerous ancient and contemporary languages and became known as “the golden bridge” between Ukrainian and world literatures.
In recognition of Franko’s invaluable contributions to Ukrainian literature and culture, and of his championing of universal human rights, he has been referred to as the “Ukrainian Moses” who toiled to lead his people to the promised land of freedom envisaged by the renowned Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.
The overarching theme of the trilogy Turbulent Times is the growth of national and political awareness in Halychyna (Galicia) in the second half of the nineteenth century. The social and economic unrest of the early nineteenth century culminated in the abolition, in 1848, of the oppressive feudal system established in 1772 when Halychyna came under Austrian control.
The societal changes set in motion by this momentous event were slow and torturous. The next few decades were marked by confusion, resistance, repression, violence, strikes, and conflict over residual issues around access to and ownership of forests and pastures, compensation of the lords for the loss of forced, unpaid peasant labour, and the termination of the absolutist political and legal structures that gave the lords the right to punish, imprison, and put to death recalcitrant peasants under their control.
Serfdom was predicated on the untrammeled use of violence against the peasants and a callous exploitation of the peasants’ illiteracy, ignorance, and servility. As the freed serfs, under the tutelage of educated cadres of activists, took the first steps to national and political consciousness, they became acutely aware of their collective weakness and the redeeming power of education and knowledge. Literacy meant that information could be disseminated and evaluated, grievances could be filed, rights could be asserted, and justice could be demanded. The written and printed word became the primary tool of change and empowerment.
In the end, what proved most resistant to change was not the economic, legal, and political inequity, but the psychology of the people and the relations among groups with disparate social histories characterized by potentially explosive intersects between social stratum and ethnicity. At the turn of the twentieth century, fifty years after the end of serfdom, the struggle for personal and social emancipation was far from over.
The three volumes in this trilogy paint a vivid and unsettling picture of life in Halychyna from the rural and urban insurrections of the 1840s and the abolition of serfdom in 1848, to the disillusionment of the following decades and the complex struggle for national and democratic reform in the latter part of the 19th century. The events depicted provide a rich and moving account of the social and economic conditions that prompted the first wave of Ukrainian immigration to the United States and Canada.
Franko drew the material for his prose from personal observations and experiences, and infused it with his passionate commitment to ameliorating the lot of the the common people and raising their national and political consciousness.
In the works selected for this trilogy he directed his attention to historical figures and episodes that captured his imagination with their quintessentially human and dramatic content. The backdrop against which the protagonists live out their lives is true to fact; only their specific characteristics and actions are fictitious.
In an introduction to the short stories included in Volume I, drawn from the collection From the Turbulent Years, Franko elaborated on his terse and lucid statement of his literary purpose, “to discover the entire world in a drop of water” and to communicate “that which is universal, eternal and immortal in the particular, the partial, and the accidental.”:
A historical novel is not history; and a writer, even when he draws on historical documents and portrays events veridically, should acknowledge both to himself and his readers that he is a storyteller and that not even for a moment does he depart from this role . . . Historical documents, irrespective of how diligently and extensively he makes use of them, provide him only with descriptions of discrete events that allow the reconstruction of an era, pale outlines of the incidents and people involved. That which is the essence of a literary work—individual lives, actions, passions—must be created by the author.
It is true that the task of the historian is somewhat analogous, but it is only analogous; he must deduce from historical documents the spirit and character of the times and recreate them for the reader; he must find the basic trend in thousands of details, the principles of historical development in fragments of information, and the normative in myriads of individual characteristics.
In sharp contrast, the belletrist captures the essence of discrete incidents and, from the whirlwind of historical events seizes upon individuality, elaborates upon it, as if unravelling a single red thread from a multicoloured tapestry, and by ricocheting off this individuality he, as if incidentally, shows us major historical events, and allows us to view them as if through a small window.
In so doing, his purpose at all times is to lay bare the human heart, its fervent aspirations and consuming passions, its struggles, triumphs and defeats; the more lifelike the characters portrayed against the backdrop of a historical event, and the more the protagonists come through as real people and not as mannequins in historical costumes, the more compelling and enduring the work of fiction.
The two novellas in Beacons in the Darkness, the second volume of the trilogy—one, Unknown Waters, set in rural Halychyna, and the other, Lel and Polel, in Lviv, the capital of the region—describe the post-1848 emergence of educated, nationally and politically aware young people dedicated to the enlightenment and empowerment of the largely illiterate masses in both the Ukrainian (Eastern) and Polish (Western) parts of Halychyna. These activists became beacons of hope in the multifaceted and discouraging struggle for social justice, economic equity, and democratic and national rights in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The setting of the third volume, the novel Fateful Crossroads, is Eastern Halychyna in the 1890s. The major protagonist, a young lawyer, is a distillation of the characteristics that Franko most valued in those members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia engaged in national, social and political activism. Committed to arming the peasantry with the tools of self-confidence and knowledge, he dedicates his talents to the promotion of social justice and democratic institutions, channels the peasants’ resentments into positive political activism, and models the use of constructive, legitimate ways to ameliorate their lot in life. The path that he chooses at the fateful crossroads in his life is the one Franko envisaged as turning the tide at the crossroads at which Halychyna found itself at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Sonia Morris, Editor
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