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A Russian Story? Eugene Onegin meets Ukraine

Seems like kismet that I am teaching Eugene Onegin in the week that I was asked to review a newly translated novella by Eugenia Kononenko called A Russian Story (Glagoslav Publications, 2012).

This novella strikes at the heart of Russian-Ukrainian relations and the complicated post-Soviet global lives of former Ukrainian citizens. Featuring a hero named "Eugene Samarsky" ("derived not from the Russian place-name Samara on the Volga, but from the name of a minor Ukrainian river, a tributary of the Dnipro," as he never tires of explaining), the book explores the travels and travails of the post-Soviet son of Ukraine as he inexorably and with a certain self-aware incredulity follows the path of Pushkin's hero: he inherits an country estate (or at least a house) from a distant uncle, meets sisters named Tatiana and Olga, accidentally kills Olga's fiance Vladimir and has to flee the country and wander through foreign lands...

In the meantime, the narrator muses on the meaning of Ukraine. "In today's globalized world," he thinks, "you don't lose your homeland; it is subsumed in that universal globality." But is it? For his wife Dounia, a Russian literature and culture professor at Midwest University (wait -- is that where I work?!), Ukraine is synonymous with Harvard -- the only place in the United States where there are actual positions and funding for Ukrainian Studies. But Eugene discovered the Ukrainian language as the Soviet Union (and all his stable prospects) were coming to an end. He is doubly fluent, in a way that his mother the Ukrainian Russian literature teacher and his acquaintance the Russian Ukrainian literature teacher simply are not -- he is of the past moment and of the future simultaneously. And he doesn't know where or who he is in the present.

The novel wanders into folklore and ancient history, the Westernization of Ukraine and the borders between Russian and Ukrainian literature (is Gogol finally Russian or Ukrainian?). And though the plot meanders, it is following a Pushkinian path -- up to and including a final meeting with a mature and intelligent Tatiana, who has learned from the library Eugene abandoned at his country home, and the long-awaited letter (de rigueur for an Onegin parody) from Tatiana to Eugene.

In discussing Pushkin's novel, my students can't decide what interests them more: the friendship between Onegin and Lensky or the one between the narrator and Eugene. In this famous sketch from Pushkin's manuscripts (at right), we see Pushkin and his protagonist leaning on the embankment overlooking the Neva River and Peter and Paul Fortress. But in Kononenko's rewriting, we might envision two Eugenes -- a Ukrainian and a Russian -- with two heritages, overlapping and sometimes parallel, often contentious, always evocative. Try as he might, and though he becomes a true Ukrainian patriot, Eugene cannot reject his Russian childhood in Kiev. To complicate matters even further, Kononenko also evokes Kundera, and there is no doubt that coitus plays an important role in Eugene's self-fashioning. (For him, Ukrainian is the "language of love.")

Like Samarsky, Onegin took his name from a river, and only when the new Eugene is separated from his homeland by an even larger body of water does he come to understand his place in it and in the post-Soviet global landscape.

Readers of Kononenko will note that this is a British translation from Ukrainian; one occasionally feels a Slavic diction that interferes with the sentence structure in English, and an American reader might be left wondering at the definition of the important Ukrainian food product "speck." For that definition, I can recommend this blog post.


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