The defining book

I have a theory. Actually, I have a lot of theories and enough wisdom to know to keep most of them to myself.  This is one which I’ll put out there anyway.

For my first novel, I must have bought about fifty other books. There were a few novels in there, but the books were mainly non-fiction across the whole gambit of East German society from food to design to political structures and a few books with photos (if you can’t actually visit the place, there’s nothing like hundred of photos to get the right images in your head.) But one defined the society:

Over 1,000 pages of detailed descriptions of pretty much every aspect of the way the country worked. Somehow it seemed to encapsulate the stifling control exercised over so much. And the book itself was very German in the way it was organised as well as the technical brilliance of the sentence structure. German seems to work beautifully for this type of theoretical analysis, with its compound nouns that save all the explanation English needs, as well as the way in which multiple descriptions can be nested around one main concept.

So my theory is that there is one (large and expensive, it seems) book which exemplifies the world my stories are set in. For East Germany, that was it.

Now we come to the next novel and my new obsession. 1930s Ukraine. I’ve never been there (and obviously I will never go to 1930s anywhere). I don’t speak the language. After a week, I’m still trying to get my head around the alphabet and the vowel sounds. It’s always the vowels that matter. I’m pretty sure there’s one vowel sound in particular that can help distinguish an American from a Canadian, but that’s another of my theories I’m not supposed to mention in public. Anyway, back to Ukraine. In printed Cyrillic, my main character’s name is written леся. Just that little thing is a constant reminder that I am stepping gingerly into a different world, where that writing is the norm, and the English ‘Lesya’ would look entirely wrong.

But I’ve found the one book that has helped me to gain a foothold in the world I’m beginning to explore from afar. And it’s a book of poetry this time, because it seems you can’t separate Ukraine from Тарас Шевченко. See my problem already? I’m too used to dealing with a language I can work in.

Not helpful. At all. The good news is that there is a (relatively) recent translation of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry which I can use, because otherwise it would remain inaccessible to me, at least in its complete form.

The Ukrainian version is available for free in electronic format. The translation is (quite rightly) not free – all 404 pages of it. From the introduction (excerpts):

‘Born as a serf in 1814 and orphaned by the age of 11, paras Shevchenko was taken by his owner to St. Petersburg, where prominent intellectuals recognised his talent as an artist.  They bought Shevchenko’s freedom and he soon began writing vivid poetry that abounds with patriotic references to Ukrainian history, geography and culture, as well as devastating portrayals of imperial Russian authoritarianism. This led to his arrest and exile to Russia’s desolate Asian frontier. Czar Nicholas I personally prohibited the poet from writing and painting.’

Oh yes, Shevchenko was an artist as well as a poet.

This is where I confess I’m not big on poetry. There are some exceptions, but not many. Michael Rosen springs to mind. I tried Ted Hughes. Not my thing. Ditto a few others. But Shevchenko… I like him.

Here’s one of his poems from 1848:

Come on, let’s write some poems again.

Secretly, of course. Come on,

While something novel forms a basis,

Let’s refurbish God’s old tale.

Or… how to tell you,

Without lying. Let’s again

Curse fate and people.

People, so they’ll show respect

And know us.

Fate, so she won’t slumber,

So she may take good care of us.

But you see the fix she’s put us in:

Indifferently, she left a child

At a crossroads,

And he’s poor, young

But with whitened whiskers, —

Just a kid, of course, —

And he softly hobbled off

To live beneath a foreign fence

Far beyond the Urals.

He found himself amid a desert,

He found himself in bondage…

How, cruel fate, can one not curse you?

I won’t curse you, fate,

Instead I’ll hide behind the ramparts.

And I’ll secretly write poems,

I’ll roam the world,

And I’ll expect you, my fate,

As a guest in bondage

From beyond the mighty Dnipro!

I already have the ending of this next novel (all right, so the current ending, it will probably change). It’s basically a few lines of a poem of Shevchenko which, when I had Lesya say it and could picture where she was at the time, made me cry. I just have to figure out how to get her from where she starts the story to that place, but it seems it will be Shevchenko’s poems which accompany us along the way. Something I could never have imagined when I started this book with the thought ‘that would be an interesting story’…

Now back to that infuriating alphabet. Or Абетка.

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