The rustic philosopher and lyristOn the fate of Vasyl Dumansky
Vinnytsia oblast – Since his very birth, a grave malady confined him to his bed. But fate made up for his physical disability with such deep talent and wisdom, that even after his death, Vasyl Dumansky is still revealing to the readers new, hitherto unknown sides of his exceptional gift.
The future writer was born into a family of collective farm workers in a village with a very symbolic name, Seredynka (“the middle”), lost in the middle of nowhere, far from big cities and even from the raion town, Bershad. His parents’ joy was marred by a cruel diagnosis: myelitis, gradual and inescapable muscle atrophy. There was no cure for this malady back in the 1950s, just as there was none later, when the cold sun of his life was setting for good...
THE WORD AS SALVATION
Since childhood, the boy was doomed to immobility and a short-lasting existence within the four walls of his home. When he began to realize that he differed from the other kids who could walk, run, and frolick in the fields and by the river, his little heart was squeezed with fear and anxiety. What if his parents would leave him in a sanatorium? His acute ear caught a fragment of the grown ups’ conversations, and he could hear some “well-wishers” advise his parents to give up their crippled son and not complicate their lives which was not easy as it was. However, his fears were unfounded. Halyna and Mykhailo, his mother and father, chose to care for their son. By the way, they later built a new house – based on Vasyl’s design. His parents did everything so that the boy would not feel deprived. His room, and the garden near the house, were always vibrant with children’s voices. He had lots of good friends. It looked as if they did not even notice his disability and treated him like an equal.
But when it came to the strength of spirit and intellect, Vasyl was much more adult than his peers. Learning brought him a lot of pleasure (he was home-schooled), and he got a high school diploma. In the 1960s his interests were quite obvious: he enjoyed reading fiction, and asked his parents to buy him more books, reference literature, and dictionaries. Such was the start of his road to the knowledge of the written word. It was his choice – the only one he could possibly make under the circumstances. It took him a while to realize that words would save his soul, and at the same time a means to convey his confused thoughts and emotions to others.
He started writing miniatures, observations of nature and people. He polished each phrase, so it might touch other peoples’ hearts. Dumansky believed that his duty (and calling) was to bring joy to others via his miniatures, poems, and aphorisms; those who were far away would receive his letters, which he lovingly named “little cranes.” How much he enjoyed writing them, and how he waited to get them from someone else!
Each of his letters is a true masterpiece. Later he would say of his letters:
“And though I wrote them in prose, they reflected each movement of my heart. Such little sketches of experiences are called studies by artists, and are used for paintings later.
“Now, at the ripe age, I would call my frequent letters ‘little cranes,’ for they break free beyond the walls and fly high into the little patch of blue overhead. They fly away and never come back: they either perish out there, or make nests... I love to cherish my ‘little cranes’ and then set them free: let them pay back my eternal debts to the people, the debts of goodwill, compassion, and kindness. That is why the most precious things for me have been the pen, which I use to put my world on paper, and the clock, which is always rushing me, ‘Come-on-come-on-come-on...’.”
Of course he was well aware of his physical limitations. Yet at the same time, he genuinely valued the niche given to him by God:
“I was lucky – I was crucified at once. Due to this, I didn’t have to stray in the maze of righteous and unrighteous paths, or carry my burden to Calvary; nor did I do any evil, for my hands were nailed. Only my soul would sometimes yearn for ordinary human life – but each move would make my wounds bleed.
“And then, my heart was gripped with such agony that I wanted to beg God for mercy then and there. But the crosspiece would not let me raise my face towards the sky. Therefore, I had to bear my suffering motionless, to give a background to the joy of those who could walk the earth...”
THE RUSTIC PHILOSOPHER
At the start of his literary career, when his first poem was published by the local newspaper, followed by frequent studies and essays, Dumansky wrote a letter of response to the article by the writer Natalia Okolitenko entitled “Create Your Own Joy,” published in the magazine Ukraine. At the age of 22, he wrote, “What joy of life are you talking about? I suffer from a hereditary disease, myelitis, and the degradation of my muscle tissue is under way. Nothing awaits me but humiliation of existence, and an early end to full conscience. However, I yearn for death, in order not to be a burden for others.
“For how shall I live? Just don’t you go about advising me to take multivitamins or anything else of this kind, because for me all medical efforts are but mockery. However, medicine is not to bear the blame for being helpless when it encounters nature, or what is above nature.”
In her reply, Okolitenko advised the young man to try literature, as she saw signs of a genuine talent in his letter, and also offered her help. But this is where everything ended. However, in 1996 a strange woman came to see her and said that she had an errand, to give the writer a heartfelt “thank you” from Dumansky for having shown him the right way. The visitor also handed her two books by Dumansky, in modest covers, My Day and November, signed by the author. Okolitenko wrote her second letter to Dumansky, but the reply came when he was already gone.
The village philosopher felt that he was living his last days, yet he met his death bravely. He perceived it like a wise and courageous man should. On the very edge, ready to make a step into the great beyond, he wrote as if summarizing his experiences:
“There is something in life which is even more important than happiness in its everyday sense. It is a mission. It took me long to realize it, but the insight was a marvellous reward for my suffering. This is why I am not sorry for what I have been through, and the past does not hurt. Of course I could only have a tiny bit compared with others – just enough to live on. But even this trifle gave such wealth to my soul that I stopped agonizing over the feeling of my own wastefulness.
“Right now, when my living space is caving in, and the jagged wall of hopelessness is rising to the sky, I do feel placid. Not subjugated, and not honored with something – but rather feeling fulfilled.
“I think it would be great if everyone realized the idea of mission. Then, both the happy and the unhappy, in the everyday sense of this word, would feel equal in terms of their ‘value’ in life. This takes the agony away.”
For many years his little masterpieces were published in newspapers. At the end of his short, yet bright life two books were printed in Vinnytsia. They were sponsored by a local agricultural company, headed at the time by Fedir Kavun, called “an aristocrat of spirit” by Oleh Chornohuz.
Volodymyr Lysenko, director of the Vinnytsia oblast organization of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, also put in a lot of effort to promote the publishing of the books. He printed a special issue of the newspaper with the words of Dumansky’s mother as the headline, “Thank you all for hearing his heart beat.”
When Dumansky’s first books were published, they had a lot of reviews in the press.
The author of one of them, the talented educator and poet (who is, unfortunately, no longer with us) Stepan Pavlenko, gave an exceptionally precise despription of Dumansky’s work. He compared Dumansky with yet another Vasyl, Stus, who said, even though he was chained head to foot, his eloquent phrase, “God is already being born inside of me.”
In his review, Pavlenko wrote: “God, seen or unseen, is present in each word of Vasyl Dumansky. In each agonizing and bitter word – but nowhere near hopeless and oppressive. In his words which, despite endless agony and grief, are dominated by light, love, and kindness, there is no room for hate and malice.”
Trying to find a common definition for all written by Dumansky is a challenging endeavor. Each of the hundreds of his miniatures has something individual and unique. It is impossible to render them – they must be read.
Dumansky made a slow, but sure entrance into literature with his short prose pieces, poems, and aphorisms, which he called ‘shoots.’ His voice was gradually rising, and his talent was becoming stronger. But at the same time, the feeble light of his physical existence was fading. In one of his letters he said, “I started to have convulsions of soul: now I yearn for an active life, now I slip into a passive existence – which eventually starts to win over me. These are the symptoms of the inevitable...
“I will resist, as always: losing your courage is the same as falling face down on the ground, painful, ugly, and humiliating. There is a way out of every desperate situation: it is unusual, opposite the conventional flow, and therefore inconspicuous. For me it is a special state of the soul, which allows me to be a prop rather than a burden for someone.”
In his last two years he was too feeble to as much as turn over a page in a book, he could hardly hold a pen in his fingers, and wrote using a stencil. Yet in his wisdom and power of spirit he outdid the others, even though they were physically able. His fellow villagers came to him for advice and gave heed to his opinion. Young couples came for him to bless them before a wedding – it became a tradition in the village.
When his first book, My Day, was pubished, a presentation was held in the village community center. It was an unforgettable event. Next year, when Dumansky turned 45, his second collection, November, appeared. Its arrival was celebrated by the writers Oleh Chornohuz, Natalka Poklad, and Yevhen Verbylo (then head of the National Union of Journalists). The following year, in early June of 1996, he passed away. The Day appeared several months later, and there is no doubt that Dumansky would have been among its authors.
THE “CHOICE” OF MEMORY
The posthumous edition of Dumansky’s book The Choice (Rada Publishers) appeared in Kyiv in 2000. It incorporated his first two books, as well as a third one, which he had finished three months before his death. The edition, compiled by Taisia Sviatenko and edited by Poklad, was sponsored by the community, with the list of benefactors attached at the end of the book. Later, due to Sviatenko’s efforts, this well presented collection was sent to the largest libraries in Ukraine and worldwide, to all the continents including Antarctica, where our researchers are working at the station “Academician Vernadsky.” The presentation was held at the Ukrainian House in Kyiv.
Now Dumansky’s work is a part of the curriculum at the schools of Podillia [a historic region of south-western Ukraine]. Also, schoolchildren all over Ukraine write dictations based on his texts: they are included in a collection of dictations which has a circulation of several hundred thousand copies, approved by the Ministry of Education and Science.
The writer and philosopher’s memory is especially honored by his fellow countrymen, the residents of Seredynka. The village school houses the memorial room of Vasyl Dumansky – the school was recently renamed in his honor. By the way, the prettiest street in the village also carries his name.
Each year on August 22, Dumansky’s birthday, there is a feast held in the village, to honor the best farmers and commemorate their renowned fellow countryman. A candle burns in front of the writer’s portrait on the stage of the community center, while his works are read aloud. There are also book exhibits and festivals of traditional crafts. The local newspaper Bershadsky Krai (the land of Bershad) and the board of the local agricultural company Progress initiated Vasyl Dumansky Prize in 2000, which is annually awarded to the best amateur correspondent.
This year, Dumansky would have been 60. Therefore preparations for the anniversary and the festivities are a good occasion to bring his heritage into the limelight. In one of his miniatures he wrote: “Eternity is boundless. This is why all that is earthly seems so tiny in comparison with it. We are but shooting stars, and our main mission is to shine, and not to waste.” This is what he was for all who knew him and who were moved by his works: a bright, shining star.
Fedir Shevchuk, Merited Journalist of Ukraine, was the editor of Dumansky’s first books