Young Dutch writers are sometimes complained that they write too much navel-gazing autofiction. Always about their own fears, doubts and love struggles: why doesn’t the new generation come up with a more ambitious novel about major historical themes?
These types of complainers can now indulge themselves Whale of oblivion by Tanya Malyarchuk. She was born in Ivano-Frankivsk in 1983, worked as a journalist in Kyiv and has been living in Vienna for many years now. In 2016 got her fin whale the prize for BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year, and on the flap of the Dutch edition she is advertised as the new female Thomas Mann. Yet it took a war to get it translated into Dutch.
Unhappy love relationships
At first glance, this story seems like nothing new, a familiar account of a millennial woman at odds with herself. The narrator is a writer whose literary career is not quite what she hoped it would be. She questions the meaning of her existence. She has a series of unhappy love affairs. All those lovers, she writes, had a round head. (“A round head is a head that, if you take it off the neck and give it a push, it starts to roll.”) Her own head, on the other hand, has “the type of skull that lends itself perfectly to being placed on a stick after death.” to be speared and placed in a mysterious dungeon’. She’s not the cheerful type.
When anxiety and depression prevent her from leaving her house, she can only find solace in the seemingly aimless leafing through historical newspapers. There she comes across an article from 1931 that reports the death of one Vyacheslav Lypynsky. And then the novel takes a unique turn. From that moment on, the first-person interweaves her own life story with that of Lypynsky, the Ukrainian-Polish politician and historian (1882-1931) who campaigned for an independent Ukraine.
A liquid gel of suffering
Because what binds these two? At least they share the same birthday. They are both lost souls, and both have unhappy love lives. And they are depressed. She expresses it this way: ‘It felt like I was swimming in circles in an aquarium filled with a liquid gel of suffering’. And of Lypynsky we read: “Only an endless day whirled before him, swirling with loneliness and dragging itself as slowly as a slug over a corpse.”
But there is also that enormous distance in time between them. Lypynsky’s world is that of the Ukrainian intellectual independence movement of the early twentieth century. Through all kinds of magazines and publications he tried to awaken the Ukrainian national consciousness. Gradually he sees how his dream of an independent Ukraine is being ground in the wheels of history.
It is all very instructive for those who know little about this period. Translators Tobias Wals and Marina Snoek added a handy historical overview just to be on the safe side. All extremely topical to read this now, of course, but some passages also sound very harsh in 2022. Their homeland […] was de facto part of Russia. But can you call a country that kills on its own your homeland?’ Or quite prophetically: ‘The Ukrainians […] have found themselves in a situation where they either have to give in and disappear as a people, or they have to revolt. History does not know one example of a people who gave in of their own will. The Ukrainian people are no exception to this and will not give in without a fight.’
It remains a strange book, based on a rather bizarre fact. At times the novel breathes the typical early twentieth-century Thomas-Mann atmosphere, including long-living people in sanatoriums on the eve of the First World War, at other times it jumps to the love life of a modern young woman who has an affair with her professor. But it really works beautifully.
The first person, it becomes clear, is an offspring ‘of submission and agony’. Ultimately, this incredibly rich, lyrical and melancholy novel wants to tell something about generational trauma. And even more than about the history of Ukraine, Malyarchuk’s book is about forgetting. About the mystery of time that swallows us all, without leaving a trace.