“This city killed her. This country killed her. A country where a judge can go tearing down the road at night, stinking drunk, and murder a pedestrian with a car as enormous as a hearse, bought with blood-stained bribes, and then go unpunished by leveraging his connections…” bemoans the protagonist in Ukrainian author Andriy Lyubka’s 2018 psychological thriller Your Gaze, Cio-Cio San. In the novel, Mark Zadorozhnyy, a political analyst living in Uzhhorod, vows to take revenge against a corrupt judge who kills his wife in a hit-and-run and gets out of doing jail time. Lyubka collected material for three years before writing the book, meticulously crafting every detail of the plot, including the best location in Uzhhorod to aim a sniper rifle at someone. “I started keeping a notebook documenting the life of my protagonist,” says the author, “and consulted with a psychotherapist who teaches at Uzhhorod National University. We discussed the protagonist as if he were a real person, focusing on his childhood, the hyper-masculine image society imposes on a man, the path that led him to the idea of murder, and social justice as a kind of inner freedom.”
Many of Lyubka’s books are inextricably tied to the harsh reality of modern-day Ukraine: a country that still faces momentous challenges following the triumph of the EuroMaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity, in 2014. Back then, tens of thousands of Ukrainians gathered not only in Kyiv but throughout the country to protest against the corrupt, pro-Kremlin dictator Viktor Yanukovich. Months of demonstrations which quickly escalated into violent clashes led to Yanukovich’s ousting, and Ukrainians were hopeful that the act signaled the beginning of a new era for the country. “For me, Maidan was the best time of my life,” says the author, who was an active participant. “I believed in my country and my people because I saw there were so many of us ready to defend social values, noble ideas, to fight for freedom. After the revolution, however, everyone went home, and soon after the euphoria passed, political intrigues and career-building on the revolutionary image began. In short, everyday life took over.”
“After the revolution, however, everyone went home, and soon after the euphoria passed, political intrigues and career-building on the revolutionary image began. In short, everyday life took over”
Carbide, Lyubka’s breakout hit published in 2015, takes place shortly after the revolution. It was shortlisted for the 2015 BBC Ukraine Book of the Year Award, one of the country’s most prestigious literary prizes. Reilly Costigan Humes’ and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler’s English translation of the novel was recently published by Jantar in 2020; the Wild Theatre’s stage adaptation debuts in Kyiv this July. In the novel, Tys, a drunken history teacher living in a small Transcarpathian town, comes up with the noble plan to smuggle the entire population of Ukraine into Europe through a tunnel dug under the border with the European Union. “Claiming that Ukraine isn’t part of Europe is like claiming that a man’s heart isn’t part of his body,” declares Tys in one of his many impassioned, vodka-fueled speeches. “If Ukraine is a European state, if the centre of Europe is smack dab in the middle of Ukrainian Transcarpathia, then nobody will ever be able to tear us away from the bosom of Mother Europe!” The only problem? Tys enlists a group of local smugglers to help him realise his goal, and they have plans of their own for the tunnel. It is a brilliant satire that reminds the reader that revolutionary fervor, on its own, cannot bring about true change in a country: the real challenges begin after the revolution ends.
Shortly after the EuroMaidan, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and sent troops into the Donbas region of Ukraine. The Russo-Ukrainian war is ongoing, and many books about it have been published, including memoirs by Ukrainian soldiers returning from the war zone. Lyubka himself frequently writes on the topic for major news outlets and media platforms in Ukraine such as Zbruc and Radio Free Europe. Citing Serhiy Zhadan’s The Orphanage — a novel about an apolitical teacher of Ukrainian language who must rescue his nephew from the occupied territories during the outbreak of the war — as an example, Lyubka explains how this genre of Ukrainian war literature has evolved since 2014, “moving away from blindly patriotic admiration for military heroes and valiant defenders of the homeland, trying instead to understand war as a universal act that has changed little since the time of Sophocles, an act in which human pain and suffering on both sides are always greater than ideals.”
War is also a topic which is part of the deep connection shared by literature from Ukraine and the Balkan countries, Lyubka argues. Having graduated with a Master’s Degree in Balkan Studies from Warsaw University in 2014, Lyubka is also a prolific translator of literature from the region, bringing the works of Ivo Andrić, Dubravka Ugrešić, Miljenko Jergović, Svetislav Basara, and others to Ukrainian readers. Ukraine and the Balkan countries are, in Lyubka’s words, “connected by the loneliness [of war] in a globalised world where no one needs us.” But perhaps the most important lesson of 20th century Balkan literature for readers in Ukraine, and across the world, is that it shows the transformative power of conflict. “Through our enemies, we come to know ourselves,” Lyubka explains. “War is a productive source of material for man: it is a state of extremes that highlights all the good and evil in human nature.”