Authors: Eugenia Kononenko
A RUSSIAN STORY
The translation was made possible thanks to financial assistance
of Arseniy Yatseniuk “Open Ukraine” Foundation
A Russian Story
by Eugenia Kononenko
Translated by Patrick John Corness
First published in Ukrainian as “Російський сюжет”
© 2012, Eugenia Kononenko
Translation rights granted by Calvaria Publishing House,
© 2013, Glagoslav Publications, United Kingdom
Glagoslav Publications Ltd
88-90 Hatton Garden
EC1N 8PN London
ISBN: 978-1-78384-013-7 (Epub)
ISBN: 978-1-78384-014-4 (Kindle)
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This book is in copyright. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
In the preparation of my English translation of
A Russian Story
I have been fortunate in enjoying the close co-operation of the author throughout. Ideally, this is how all literary translations should be written, so as to ensure that the translator is enabled to realise the author’s intentions creatively without overstepping them. I would also like to gratefully acknowledge the support of my Ukrainian colleagues Dr Bogdan Babych and Dr Svitlana Babych of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Leeds, who read the translation and made positive suggestions for improvements of detail.
— Patrick John Corness.
Patrick John Corness is presently Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Leeds. Formerly a Principal Lecturer in Russian and German, with wide experience in translation and interpreting, he has specialised since 2000 in literary translation from Czech, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. He holds the Silver Medal of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, for achievements in the international dissemination of Czech scholarship and culture. His interest in Ukrainian grew out of several years of close involvement during the 1990s in EU-funded projects supporting collaboration between universities in Western Ukraine and Coventry University in England. He has contributed translations of modern Ukrainian short stories to
Ukrainian Literature, a Journal of Translations
The Massachusetts Review
The Stinging Fly
To the memory of my Mother
A friend of his mother’s, Iryna Romanivna, lived in a pre-revolutionary building in Lviv Square, and when he was a child her home had a remarkable effect on him. Venetian windows that looked out on to the old part of town, high ceilings, paintings on the walls — everything was so different from what he had known at his parents’ house at Vitryani Hory. Iryna Romanivna’s accommodation was not self-contained; she had a room in a communal flat, and in addition to the main door there was another one which always remained closed, hidden behind a large bookcase. That door must have led to the neighbours’ room in the communal flat. However, he used to think it led to some different world. When he first asked Iryna Romanivna what would happen if they opened it she whispered that if you did not do so carefully you might disturb some very powerful sorcerers!
Ever since he has been living in America, he has occasionally had dreams about that room, though he never consciously remembers it. He dreams of the gold stripes on the wallpaper, the tall windows and the roofs of the old houses beyond. Now he is pushing the bookcase aside and opening that mysterious door, to find himself in a neatly whitewashed, sparsely furnished room in a rural cottage; there is just a table with benches in the middle, reflected on the well-varnished floor as though in a mirror. He takes a step inside this white room and he feels an eerie draught. On the wall there is a sloping mirror — he must have a look in it. Then Iryna Romanivna calls him: “Zhenia, where are you going? Come back this instant!” He wakes with a feeling of deep sadness that he has missed seeing something extremely important.
On a clear October day a group of five people were unhurriedly munching away in the open air, on a hill amid the extensive plains of the American Midwest. They were sitting on folding chairs around a table, also a folding one, eating off plastic plates and drinking from paper cups. They had driven out a dozen miles or so from the university campus and settled down here on a hilltop in the middle of the prairie, leaving the car by the roadside.
The company consisted of two women, one of whom could be described as a woman a little over forty, the other as a woman well over forty, two men of similar age-groups and a teenager who was fifteen. The teenager, named Myroslav, was the common denominator of the group. The man and the woman a little over forty were his long-since-divorced parents. The woman and the man nearing fifty were the respective new spouses of his parents and it could be that this pragmatic lad enjoyed a better relationship with them than with his own parents.
“It’s great that you and
got divorced and that you both re-married,” the son had told his father that morning, sitting in the car as his dad’s wife Dounia Gourman drove them to the shopping centre. “How dull it would have been to share grandad and grandma’s flat in Pushkin Street!”
The flat of his deceased grandfather Professor Nebuvaiko on Pushkin Street in Kyiv is quite large, not only by Soviet standards but even by post-Soviet standards. Now his grandfather has died, Myroslav and his grandmother live in those four large rooms, just the two of them. Periodically, he goes to Camargue to visit his mother and her Thierry, who has a successful restaurant business in the south of France, or he comes here, to visit his dad and Dounia Gourman, a professor of Russian at the local university. The boy is now going to spend a whole year in the United States. He has already started attending a local school, and he is living with his father and Dounia. His mother has just come to visit them with her Thierry. Of course, they will not stay long. American homes have four bedrooms upstairs, but they were never intended to be separate living quarters. Actually, the very fact that the group consists of former spouses and new spouses means that even in terms of the cultivated correctness of American society they are not supposed to spend an extended period of time under the same roof.
Actually, what is political or any other sort of correctness? It means being able to keep yourself from boiling over when you are all seething inside. It cannot be said that in this company, which has just ceased its munching and is languidly watching swallows swooping over the prairie, the drive into the country had aroused a dormant whirlwind of passions. But old sparks are nevertheless sometimes rekindled, which is slightly disturbing. Only Myroslav remains indifferent. Perhaps this is because he is the only one amongst them who speaks all their four languages; the others know three and a half at the most, like his mother, who is considerably less proficient in English than in French. The rest of them know even fewer languages.
To begin with, Dounia tried to get them to agree on a common language at the picnic, because her husband, Eugene Samarsky, keeps exchanging Ukrainian phrases with his former wife Lada Nebuvaiko-Giono that Dounia does not understand, and this always puts her in a slightly awkward position. It is this lack of understanding as such that Dounia is concerned about, rather than the fact that her husband and his ex-wife still retain a residual common language. Not only in terms of Ukrainian, but in a somewhat broader sense.
Lada addresses Dounia as
, or even
. And Klavdia Nebuvaiko, who was always called Lada in Ukraine, answers to Dounia’s
. When her son Myroslav heard this, he burst out laughing: “Klava! Klava!” — pointing a finger at his mother. As he explained to his
, if you said “you Klava” to a girl in Kyiv it meant you were telling her “you’re stupid.” For a long time now Lada has been called Claudine by her Thierry, because to him
means a car, not a woman. And she had a good laugh with her son; then she recalled that when she was a schoolgirl
meant something similar in young people’s slang.
“My mother kept putting on the
record until she wore the record-player out,” said Eugene.
“We remember your mother, and that record player too,” sighed Lada with a broad, nostalgic smile. “Incidentally, there you have someone who would support your wife as an enthusiastic Russophile.”
Lada was beaming with a nostalgic smile now. She used to tell his mother all sorts of unpleasant things, saying that everyone was fed up of her Russian classics, and mother did not suffer this in silence, as a matter of fact. So Lada, in order to avoid these injurious altercations, limited her contact with his parents to a minimum.
“She and Dounia, as it turned out, had entirely different views of Russian literature,” sighed Eugene. “They clashed over this. So we were not too upset when Mom did not get the three-year visa which she was very keen to obtain, despite everything, after Dad died.”
“Yes, it would definitely have been possible if you could have had a child,” said Lada.
That is rather sad. Lada and Thierry were in fact planning a child. After living together for several years, they decided to cement their relationship and they were expecting a daughter. But they had a car accident on the highway near Marseilles. That was five years ago. To give them support, Eugene and Dounia flew to Camargue for a few days. They sat by their hospital beds while they were on a drip. And on the plane on the way back they discussed the disaster that had befallen their French ‘relatives’. As for Eugene and Dounia, perhaps it had been sensible of them not to plan a child. After all, there is the unplanned Myroslav, who needs so much looking after!
Dounia is surprised that, for some reason, the lad’s sonorous name, which sounds good in any language, is not adopted in Russia. No hero of Russian classical literature, which Dounia is familiar with in all its boundless extent, bears this name. Myroslav himself is unconcerned about that. Russia is not involved in his plans for the future. And even if it had been, well, “Russia has so many non-Russians, like us!”– as his paternal grandmother enthusiastically recited from a poem by some minor Soviet poet. But the French Mi-o-slav, and the American My-ros, sound cool. He is grateful to his grandfather, the late Vasyl Tarasovych, professor Nebuvaiko, for giving him such a fine sounding name. And he also thanks his lucky stars that he has both a stepmother and a stepfather. Thanks to them, his life is far more interesting than that of those who live for years without a break from boring parents in the same tiresome dwelling, known sentimentally as their ‘parental home’.