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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert
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Is Portraying the Truth Easy?

15 June, 2004 - 00:00

A memorial plaque displaying Hryhir Tiutiunnyk’s profile, with his characteristic luxuriant forelock, was recently unveiled on the wall of a house on Andriyivsky Uzviz St. in Kyiv. The inscription reads that a “prominent Ukrainian writer” resided there in 1963-67. In fact, the author later described the house and its tenants in his largely autobiographical story “Den’ Miy Subotniy” [A Saturday Story]. The mid-1960s marked the beginning of his literary career.

Hryhir Tiutiunnyk was destined to spend exactly two decades as a writer. In 1961 the Moscow magazine Krestyanka (The Peasant Woman) published his first story called “Twilight”. In March 1980 the 48-year-old author committed suicide. The 1960s marked Tiutiunnyk’s rapid rise in Ukrainian literary life. His brother Hryhoriy, author of the well-known novel Vyr [The Whirlpool], noticed Tiutiunnyk’s talent early on. The elder brother seemed to be passing on the baton. I am reminded of Pushkin’s lines in Eugene Onegin: “The aged Derzhavin noticed us / And blessed us / As he descended to the grave..,” Hryhory Tiutiunnyk died in the very year of his younger brother Hryhir’s literary debut. His period of literary apprenticeship seemed to be of such short duration that it was almost nonexistent. His two collections of short stories titled Zaviaz [The Bud] and Dereviy [Yarrow], published respectively in 1966 and 1969, earned Hryhir Tiutiunnyk the reputation of a writer who portrays the truth, Oles Honchar declared. His works reflected the voices of all those “children of the war.” His heroes came from Nazi-occupied Ukrainian villages, the frontline, and vocational schools. All of them were individuals intent on reasserting the truth and overcoming the forces of evil. Forced to act in inhuman conditions, they fought to protect human values and justice, doing so with a desperate courage and little, if any, regard for themselves. Moral maximalism is typical of Tiutiunnyk’s works, which are marked by dramatic confrontations. His favorite heroes are humble and largely impractical rural residents, righteous people quietly determined to act the right way. They serve as alternatives to all those who are “on the other side of good,” primarily bureaucrats of all ranks, as well as pragmatists who know “the right way to live.” Moral maximalism is governed by rigid criteria; it does not generally distinguish between nuances and knows little about the dialectic of life. Yet who says that an author must resemble Themis, the blindfolded Grecian goddess of law and justice?

Tiutiunnyk’s favorite genre was a story about a perfectly ordinary individual. Here he applied his singular talent for conveying the minutest details, producing strikingly realistic dialogues and authorial commentaries, and depicting vivid landscapes. He paid special attention to every word, each one with its own value. His literary merits were quickly appreciated by perceptive readers, among them Anatoly Shevchenko, Borys Oliynyk, and Vitaly Donchyk. Moscow publishing companies eagerly issued Tiutiunnyk’s works, which frequently won literary competitions, while journals, such as Druzhba Narodov, Selskaya Molodezh, and Literaturnaya Gazeta, awarded him prizes for the best publications of the year.

The 1970s marked a trying period in the author’s life. Almost every new work had a diverse press following: critics who still professed aesthetic values wanted expert insight into that singular “mystery of love” that Hryhir Tiutiunnyk attributed to every genuine talent, whereas those critics who were acting on orders from the Kremlin resorted to the good old Zhdanov clichОs and ruthlessly attacked the Ukrainian writer. Semen Shakhovsky, commenting in typical Communist Party-directive style on Tiutiunnyk’s new book Batkivski Porohy (On Their Fathers’ Thresholds) and some earlier collections of short stories, accused the author of creating “ideologically harmful” characters and seeking to “devalue everything that occurs on a spectacularly grand scale, something that a truly gifted writer would not have overlooked.”

Anatoliy Hordiyenko, a philosopher specializing in what was then known as ideological counterpropaganda, commented in more or less the same vein. “By and large,” he wrote, “Tiutiunnyk’s conception of his contemporaries’ way of life is impoverished and distorted.” Mykola Shamota and Lazar Sanov also harshly criticized the writer.

Such attacks could not have gone unremarked. Tiutiunnyk’s “Den’ Miy Subotniy,” written in 1971, was first published in Russian translation in Studencheskiy Meridian (1975, nos. 1-2), thanks to the selfless devotion of the journal’s editor-in-chief Volodymyr Tokman. “The story is about a young man who is not officially registered anywhere in the Soviet Union, has no place to live, and who is unbelievably decent, as well as infantile.” This is what the 40 year-old Ukrainian authorwrote to Nina Dangulova, the Moscow translator, on December 5, 1971, his fortieth birthday. He went on to write: “Both our journals, Vitchyzna and Dnipro, read the manuscript (75 pp.) and returned the copies, assuring me of their support, even affection, noting, however, that it wouldn’t pass muster, so I can only expect its appearance in print as a book...I don’t consider this story an achievement, but it is sincere and God is my witness; it has something to do with the Ukrainian intellectual — or should I say semi-intellectual? — and his activities and other things in recent years. There are very few such individuals still around these days...”

Some critics still insist that Tiutiunnyk’s “Den’ Miy Subotniy” is not entirely typical of his literary legacy. In their opinion, it is rather localized in that it focuses on Kyiv, whereas the author is essentially a writer of the countryside, not the city. Personally, I consider this story very much in the Tiutiunnyk spirit. His hero Mykola Porubai is a university graduate majoring in history, outwardly very clumsy and impractical, but at the same time very given to maximalist outbursts. Fresh out of university, he decides to remain in Kyiv as a senior department assistant employed by the Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments. Finding himself at a turning point, he misses the countryside (“In the city I long for the village, and when I am in the village I long for the city,” he says). Needless to say, Mykola Porubai fits easily into the ranks of Tiutiunnyk’s children of the war. This character was also born after WW II. He had a miserable childhood, forced by circumstance to start working early to help his mother — one of those countless, desperately heroic Ukrainian women. This explains how Porubai has become injured by the war and all the wounds that he incurred at the hands of the ruthless Stalin regime; hence his maximalist outbursts that in fact determine the story’s moral collisions.

Now and then Mykola displays a Mephistophelean sense of humor (particularly when he is talking to his friend, a fellow writer) and plays practical jokes on servile visitors seeking an audience with his manager Ivan Zakharovych or on that pathologically inquisitive woman who lives next door. This, too, is a way of showing one’s rebelliousness, however it may be reduced to the level of burlesque. Likewise, he makes up for his sin by bribing Kalinkin, the house manager into allowing him to live in a small room in a dilapidated apartment house on Andriyivsky Uzviz St., knowing that the man has no authorization — and does so in his own special, anguished way. It is a humiliating experience, one that Mykola cannot forget. So when he runs into Kalinkin, he tells him what he really thinks of him and his kind, ordering him to refund the bribe by a postal money order, so that “the debt can be repaid to the state.” An overstatement? Not at all, considering that what Mykola actually means is revenge.

This kind of collision is typical. The bribe-taking Kalinkin and the complaisant and double-faced (“twin-smiling”) Ivan Zakharovych, the “guitarists” in the doorway, the woman who is living next door and spying on Mykola, hoping that her daughter Liza, who is well past her prime, will conquer his heart by trying to sing И la Maya Kristalinskaya, whereupon they will be able to expand their living space — all these personalities and their aspirations are alien to Porubai. He hates them and everything connected with them. In this sense Ivan Zakharovych cuts an especially meaningful figure. Years ago he visited Mykola’s war-devastated village as a representative of the powers that be, authorized to establish “law and order.” In him Mykola sees another embodiment of the hateful bureaucracy, a moral antipode of Tiutiunnyk’s truth-seekers. This confrontation is especially evident in his stories “Pomynaly Markiyana” [A Wake for Markiyan] and “Hramotny” [The Literate Man], in which such bureaucrats appear as automatons personifying the soulless Soviet government. Good and evil take ruthlessly polarized stands and Hryhir Tiutiunnyk wholeheartedly sides with the proverbial man in the street.

Two other characteristics of Tiutiunnyk’s creative dominion are easily traced in “Den’ Miy Subotniy”: worshipping Mother Nature in a manner practically akin to heathen idolatry (typical of his favorite oddballs) and paying reverent homage to love. Mykola Porubai recalls a girl in whose eyes he saw “something very mournful and at the same time so very tender and quiet;” “...we met only with our eyes and our souls immediately responded to each other. But perhaps true love is like that, manifesting itself in a silent exchange of the eyes and souls, living for only a brief wonderful moment that no one can interrupt...” Halia, the mailwoman in “Den’ Miy Subotniy,” is sketchily portrayed, but in the story “Oddavaly Katriu” [How Katria Got Married] Tiutiunnyk creates a Turgenev-like image of a girl whose character is developed with maximum psychological completeness, endowing her with the wealth of his own love and painful memories. Later he would admit that Katria meant everything to him.

Soviet critics wrote that Tiutiunnyk’s story “Oddavaly Katriu” was “one of those works that reflect the trend of rural-urban confrontation, keeping in mind that the village in question exists only in the imagination, not in real life.” Academician Mykola Shamota, who may be best described as Soviet Ukrainian literature’s Attorney General of the 1970s, accused Tiutiunnyk of another “sin,” and condemned his attempts to “poeticize the village as a haven for lonely individuals exhausted by the city’s hustle and bustle and a source of national self-consciousness, and so on.” Reading these judgments today reminds one of the glaring abyss between real life and dogma, between dogma and talented work.

In that type of atmosphere a truth-seeking author could only gasp for breath.

By Volodymyr PANCHENKO, Ph.D. in Linguistics