Review: Stories of the Heart

Passion’s Bitter Cup and Riddles of the Heart, translated by Roma Franko and edited by Sonia Morris. Language Lanterns Publications, 349 pages each book.

Reviewed by Halya Wawryshyn

Passion’s Bitter Cup and Riddles of the Heart are two engrossing books of short fiction written by Ukrainian male authors during the period of 1880-1920. These two anthologies, each containing 18 stories, were released in July 2005.

Some may have read the companion series, Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature, an anthology of fiction from the same period. It was published between 1998 and 2000, also by Language Lanterns Publications, which is headed by the books’ translator, Roma Franko, and editor, Sonia Morris.

Like the earlier series, the two new anthologies provide a window into the wealth of Ukrainian literature that hitherto has not been readily available to English readers.

Although most literature is vastly superior when read in the original, these translations do justice to the originals, capturing the flavour and rhythm of the writing  remarkably well.

The stories offer a fascinating glimpse of life in Ukraine at the turn of the last century. Some deal with village life, but most describe  the social milieu of the middle classes in cities such as Lviv, where class and social standing were very important.They are peopled by students, teachers, writers, journalists and petty gentry. The lower classes figure as servants and secondary characters. Suitors woo their ladies in coffee houses and zip through town with their ladies in Lviv, but the setting could easily be any major town in Europe where the Victorian social mores were very similar.

Anyone who left Ukrainian school with the misplaced idea that Ukrainian writers of that era were stuffy old men is certainly in for a surprise. Although never vulgar, coarse or graphic in detail, the subject matter is often intensely erotic. Sexual liaisons with prostitutes and between unmarried couples are abundant.

However, it is usually the women who suffered the consequences. In Hnat Khotkevych’s “The Prodigal Son,” it is Lyubtsia who stays home, cries and doesn’t even dare ask where her man is spending his time. In Franko’s “The Fatherland”, although the man experiences pangs of anguish over his “fallen woman,” it is she who dies an early and awful death.

Though the stories were deemed scandalous when they were first written, communist repression had still not taken hold and many writers expressed themselves honestly and freely.  Nevertheless, many of the 14 authors eventually perished or suffered during the Soviet terror, while Franko suffered suppression under the Poles. One author, Hnat Khotkevych, is now better known as a composer and bandurist. In the 1930s he died an untimely death when the Soviets rounded up and murdered banduristy for their role in promoting Ukrainian culture. The quality of Khotkevych’s fiction further emphasizes the grievous crime against Ukrainian and world literature and culture that his murder represented.

Brief biographies of all the writers are included at the end of both of the anthologies.

The social and political issues that concerned the writers are shared by the characters they created. Even the love stories often touch on broader societal concerns. In Franko’s “William Tell,” a young lady spurns her fiance when she realizes he is only interested in social issues superficially. Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s hero shows his love is only skin deep as he abandons the beautiful Yelena after her bout of smallpox; yet her illness leaves her unafraid to distribute forbidden books.

Although the stories are grounded in a particular time and the subject matter of some is disturbing, today’s readers should be able to appreciate and relate to them well. They discuss universal themes, among them the often erratic and unexpected nature of passionate love.

The social and political idealism of the period during which this fiction was written predated the malevolent scourge of communism that destroyed existing hopes for a better future. The after-effects are felt to this day, and these well-written stories leave us pondering what course Ukrainian fiction might have taken.

Owing to the tragic fate of many of Ukraine’s writers and the fact that Ukrainian literature had been suppressed and censored for over a century, the gems of Ukrainian literature have been absent from the lexicon of world literature. Passion’s Bitter Cup and Riddles of the Heart will hopefully go some way in correcting this by allowing English-language readers to access some of Ukraine’s best short fiction. Both anthologies are highly recommended for those who enjoy a thoroughly edifying and good read.

The two books can be purchased directly from the publisher by calling 416-840-8034 or from Requesting them at your local bookstore might help to bring them to the attention of retailers, thereby hopefully increasing their availability.

Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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