A Threat From the Secret Police of the Mind in Ukraine : PELTSE AND PENTAMERON by Volodymyr Dibrova translated by Halyna Hryn; Northwestern University Press $14.95, 198 pages
All those things that we’ve come to expect and love in Eastern European writing--the social commentary, the ironic viewpoint that can see humor and tragedy simultaneously--are present in “Peltse” and “Pentameron.” These two short novels by Volodymyr Dibrova, one of the best prose stylists in Ukraine today, together form an extraordinarily complete view of the lives of the oppressed and their oppressors during Soviet Communism’s waning days.
“Pentameron” presents a day in the life of five office workers who share the onerous task of translating boring foreign texts. Though it is a society different from ours, their personal concerns are hardly unfamiliar. Each character seeks fulfillment. The clownish Vitya yearns to be a painter. Zoyka dreams of a room of her own (leaving the communal dormitories far behind). Antonina suffers anxiety attacks over her ill son and husband. Ophelia considers a passport arrangement that will let her travel to Los Angeles. Svitlana wishes she was less frigid toward her husband. And what blocks them in their attainments? Fear.
That is a word with many connotations for Soviets. It was once a term used interchangeably with “terror” by Lenin and Stalin when they called for arrests and executions. But in the Soviet twilight, although the secret police could still pose a threat, Dibrova’s portrait shows how the collective fear of past generations was replaced.
Latter-day Soviets were persecuted by self-doubt and the fear of taking risks: “Wouldn’t it be better, wouldn’t it be wiser to wait out this storm, and then, let’s say, tomorrow. . . ?” Ophelia asks, and then talks herself out of getting the necessary travel papers. The mind is its own secret police.
“Peltse,” on the other hand, presents readers with the creation of an apparatchik. Many technical feats are pulled off in this volume. Whereas “Pentameron” showcases Dibrova’s deftness for juggling characters and keeping the story moving, “Peltse” plunges one into the hallucinations of this bureaucrat for almost its entire length. Nightmarish scenes and anonymous faces parade past as one watches Peltse’s climb to power, trivial attempts at progress (are rubber pads under railroad tracks the best service to humanity?), rise of rivals, self-loathing and subsequent fall.
The influences of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, both of whom Dibrova has translated, are visible--from the office workers’ handling of texts to Peltse’s fantastic imaginings. There is enormous compactness of phrasing here, which, as Askold Melnyczuk says in his introduction, shows that a novel is “defined by the distance a writer can travel across a sentence,” not by the number of pages.
Irony is masterly employed, with both humorous and ominous results. At one point, Vitya renounces his office job and flees to pursue his painting. This liberation, however, coincides with his lunch break and ends when it does. Peltse hears the clanking of a train in the distance, running over tracks where the padding has worn away, and detects within the noise the garbled name of the rival who will unseat him.
At the risk of sounding too bookish, what seems notable about this book, aside from it being the first publication of a Ukrainian author by a major press in 30 years, is what it suggests may be the defining voice shared by most post-Communist Slavic writers.
In the days of the Evil Empire, Western readers thrilled at how dissidents explored language so that their works could carry meanings that Soviet censors wouldn’t understand. Consider Vaclav Havel’s “Letters to Olga,” written from prison in the 1960s. Screened before mailing, Havel made them deliberately commonplace. But today, they strike us with the subtleties that Havel sowed between the lines.
Is Dibrova also writing as a prisoner? Of course not. But his works, and many others, show that the techniques of literary subterfuge have outlasted the Soviet system. “Peltse” and “Pentameron” are exciting for suggesting where Slavic writers are headed. After all, critics found enough commonalities among Latin American writers like Garcia Marquez and Borges to group them as “magical realists.”
Perhaps Dibrova’s works are a specimen of the Slavic equivalent. Either way, there is a bounty of lessons here for all writers.