The Ukraine we no longer remember: Vasyl Makhno’s debut novel

February 20, 2020

Book Review By Oksana Rosenblum

“Vichnyi Calendar” (The Eternal Calendar, in Ukrainian), by Vasyl Makhno. Lviv: Staryi Lev, 2019. ISBN-10: 617679725X.

Vasyl Makhno’s first novel, “The Eternal Calendar” (“Vichnyi Calendar”) illuminates different epochs and locations, and merges different genres. On a macro level, it is a family saga; on a micro level, it contains a number of stories within the stories and dramatized narratives. Spanning from the 1700s to our time, the Ukrainian-language novel follows family histories of a few generations, all coming from one area in western Ukraine, or eastern Galicia, with the village of Yazlivets and cities of Buchach and Chortkiv in focus.

Mr. Makhno is well-known for his numerous award-winning poetry collections and books of essays. This debut in the genre of long novels is a testimony to his dedication to the subject matter that feels close to home. Having grown up in Chortkiv, he is intimately familiar with the region and its culture. Nevertheless, he reports to have spent at least five years researching and writing “The Eternal Calendar.”

The novel is, in fact, a conglomerate of smaller novellas, each telling a story of a separate community, be it Armenian, Jewish or Ruthenian, as well as creating a context in which these communities co-exist. More often than not, the communities and people co-exist in peace. However, the war is constantly present, and the lands of eastern Galicia are occupied – by the Ottomans, by Germans, by Soviets. The reality of war highlights the worst and the best in people.

It is a chorus of voices that is the most striking accomplishment of Mr. Makhno’s monumental piece. As a reader, I am less concerned with the historical validity of the events described. Instead, I listen to protagonists of the family saga who speak together or individually. I am fascinated with the way the author breathes life into unknown names one would encounter on the pages of vital records’ books.

The level of historical detail that went into writing this book is incredibly impressive. From the terminology of war to the names of birds in the garden of Sultan Mehmet IV, to the language of Kabbalah and Sabbatianic messianism, the author creates a world in which chance has much impact on human fate. We want to believe in the causality of historical process, in things being logical and making sense, but in fact we end up being the victims of large temporal cycles that are beyond our comprehension.

Ruthenian Jews should not have trusted Messianic ideas of Shabetai Tsevi; the Jews of Galicia should not have trusted the Germans based on a futile hope they would behave like a nation steeped in the culture of Goethe. Ukrainians knew what to expect of Soviet invasion, and yet nobody imagined it would be as horrible as it turned out to be.

At the end of the day, it is an individual who pays the price and suffers, and it is that same individual who survives the system and perseveres and goes on, even when nothing seems to make sense anymore.

“The Eternal Calendar” is a profoundly sad book, despite its colorful language and ever-present humor. D., the protagonist of the last chapter, “Snow Coming from the Ocean,” lives in New York and travels back to Ukraine to the places where he grew up. He is looking for the remains of the Armenian cemetery, and he finds the location with the help of an elderly resident. He learns that no one else remembers the Armenian community anymore, and there is nothing left of the cemetery. While there, D. receives an e-mail from his New York friend, who informs him that an extraordinary discovery was made in the attic of an antique dealer in Queens: the letters of Nathan of Gaza, copied by a shamash of the Buchach Jewish community, and fragments of a letter written by Chortkiv rebbe Dovid Moshe Fridman. D. goes back to New York to trace the kind of Ukraine that is no longer available in Ukraine.

In order to read Mr. Makhno’s book, one needs to come up with a strategy. I read it from beginning to end, just straight through. It took a good few weeks. I closed the book, and realized I have to start again, from the beginning. I felt as if in the middle of a vortex, or as if I was having a dream within a dream within a dream. I remembered some parts of it perfectly well. And yet, similarly to the trajectory of one’s life that rarely reminds us of a straight line, I could not remember how I walked from point A to point B and further.

The realization was a chilling one and reminded me of what Maria Stepanova writes in her “In Memory of Memory” (“Pamiati Pamiati,” published in Russian by Novoye Izdatel’stvo, 2019), thinking about the variety of digital media and what it does to the world, to memory, to the world of our memory – it creates a situation in which neither biography, nor text, nor history can be perceived as a chain of logical events. Everything is equally present, everything is waiting for its intended reader or viewer – someday that person will read all the text, see all the photographs. The trick is, however, that the person like that does not exist. Nobody is capable of seeing all of it, nobody is able to process all of it.

That’s why reading Mr. Makhno’s novel is such a challenging and, at the same time, a rewarding experience: I cannot remember all these people, and I feel almost guilty that I can’t. I want to be able to. I am grateful, however, that “The Eternal Calendar” gives them a chance to speak up for themselves. At the end of the day, perhaps it is for the better we never quite know what the eternal calendar holds in store for us.

This book is available from Amazon.