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Hryhir Tyutyunnyk, the tragic destiny of a Ukrainian novelist
“I perceive everything that is around me and everything that is going
on around me first with my feelings, with my heart, and only then my mind
comes into play — in other words, observing an injustice or a grievance
I suffer twice. O God, how hard it is… Here, I’ve been thinking to myself,
Why is it that I’m always lacking something, if not happiness then at least inner harmony?
To write is a most difficult thing for a writer — but it is even harder not to write.
Squeezed between these two quandaries the writer lives his whole life.”
Lesya Hryhoriva looks at the remarkable
Ukrainian writer Hryhir Tyutyunnyk from a personal perspective.
Hryhir Tyutyunnyk is now considered to be the best Ukrainian latter-day short story writer. He is compared to such giants of Ukrainian literature as Kotsyubynsky and Stefanyk. A great many articles have been written about Tyutyunnyk; recollections about him have been published, diaries have been made available. But in spite of all this wealth of material, writing about him is a formidable task since it is so hard to find proper words to give full credit to his prose, colourful, vibrant, potent, hearty, with every word carefully chosen. Reading his stories, you feel the pain their author felt while writing them; they make you feel what the protagonists feel, you breathe the same air, you go through the same anguish. Such literature requires compassion and empathy but once you’ve let yourself be carried away by Tyutyunnyk’s stories it is an overwhelming expedience. Only then the writer’s following words reveal their message in full: “There is no secret in what talent is — but there’s an eternal enigma of love… For words to become adequate for a poem of beauty, of happiness and grief, of joy and sorrow, these words should come straight from the loving heart, the heart full of kindness and self-abnegation. It is not enough to see; it is not enough to understand — only Love is the answer.”
Where to find metaphors, epithets, comparisons and other figures of speech to adequately describe Tyutyunnyk’s all-embracing love for the world, for his native land, for the earnest and honest people? It was a combination of love and pain that fed his prose, that made it very special. It was he himself who was very special. He took everything close to heart and, as once he exclaimed in a heat of a discussion his “heart was full of pain.”
Every line he wrote was a result of a never ending search for the best possible way of expressing himself, of rendering his pain and his love in words. Every word he put into his writings was the only right word for that particular place where he chose to put it.
When those who were fascinated with his prose, praised him saying he was “so enormously talented,” he exclaimed, “Talented my ass! ???? If they only knew how much effort it takes to write. They don’t even suspect how hard it comes. Quite often, I get stuck in the middle of a sentence and can’t proceed. Frantically, I look for the right word and can’t find it, and without that right word the phrase I’ve begun to build falls apart, crumbles into pieces. A day may pass, or two — but no matter how hard I try I can’t find the right word. And then I wake up at night, and try to search for it in the darkness. I get up, light a cigarette and as I’m standing by the window, smoking, I suddenly feel it’s there, it’s coming! And then — it comes in a flash! I realize it’s just what I wanted. I rush to my desk to write it down so as not to lose it. All sleep is gone and I work…That’s how hard it is… Does anyone who you call talented go through such torments?”
He did not let anybody see how he worked. In memoirs and recollections about him we read that he used anything to write on when inspiration came to him — margins of newspapers, for example; that he had an amazing memory; that he could store his whole stories verbatim in his memory. But was there anything really phenomenal in these feats of memory? He must have memorized his stories so well because he worked so hard and so long on them, with each word branding itself into his soul as though with a hot iron. It was very typical of him. No matter what he said about being talented, he was extraordinarily gifted, and at the same time he drove himself very hard, never slowing down, never opting for an easier way, always giving himself fully to his work. His openness to human emotions made him vulnerable.
Once, my father, a close friend of Tyutyunnyk’s, went to his place to discover him lying on the floor, pale and evidently completely exhausted — or worse. The writer did not seem even to be breathing. My father rushed to him, fearing the worst. When my father bent over the prostrate body, Tyutyunnyk opened his eyes, smiled feebly and said in a low voice, “It’s all right, I’ve just finished writing a story, ‘My Son Has Come Back.’ ”
“When the night comes, I open the window to let the fresh air in. There are violets growing right under that window. Their fragrance fills the room and probably it is this fragrance that keeps waking me up. I start thinking about all sorts of things, but in the morning I can’t remember what it was that I thought about — however, these nocturnal musings give me a mood in which I find myself when I finally get up. Sometimes it’s a sad mood, and sometimes it’s buoyant — but more often it’s sad. How great it would be to live in this world if we had fewer of those things that give pain to the heart and depress the soul — all those petty worries, squabbles, mean stupidity, and all that filth…
But it’s better to be speaking about things like this with God — He, keeping silence, would, probably, pay heed to these complaints… But now they’ve declared there’s no God — so who can you pour your heart to? Other people have their own troubles galore. So it’s better to keep quiet, to breathe, to think and to write — to freeze the happy moment but we, wretched sinners, manage to achieve this freezing of the moment so very seldom.”
They say Hryhir Tyutyunnyk’s soul “shone with goodness”; at the same time, falsehood, cold hearts, and callousness made his heart ache. Will my attempt to bring him back in all of his complexity succeed? Will I have enough colours to portray him as he actually was? Can I fathom his depth? Can I adequately reveal the magnanimity of his soul?
A knock comes on the front door. An unexpected visitor? I hear the front door being opened and then come cheerful greetings. I carefully open the door of my room a little and through the crack I see a tall man who takes off his hat and casually adjusts his straggly black hair. The man is standing with his back to me. While my father is looking for a place to hang the guest’s overcoat at, he turns and spots me peeping out. He smiles broadly and says,
“Ah, my little one, there you are! How is your cat Murchyk doing?”
With a relief I realize it is Uncle Hryhir. I burst out of my room and begin telling him about the latest pranks of my beloved pet. In my excitement, I speak so fast, the words collide and make little sense. But Uncle Hryhir listens to my prattle very attentively, and to show his interest says once in a while, “Is that so? Really? He did that?”
I grow so bold as to invent things to embroider my story, and Uncle Hryhir gives a laugh and exclaims, “That’s amazing! It’s good enough for a short story!”
My heart leaps, the flow of my words subsides, and after a short silence, I ask timidly, “And will I be in that story?”
“Of course! It’ll be a story about you and your Murchyk!’
What a happiness — Murchyk and I will be in a story! And very slowly, fearing to scare away my happiness, I ask in a trembling whisper, “And will you have it published?”
“Sure thing! We’ll have it published in that magazine for children, Malyatko (The Little One).” He says it in a much more serious tone, sensing how important it has suddenly become for me.
I am overwhelmed with happiness. I run around the room, around the table at which my father and Uncle Hryhir sit, talking unhurriedly about what seems to me dull, incomprehensible things.
Next day, at the kindergarten, I tell the teacher and the nurse that a story about me and my Murchyk will be published in Malyatko.
“But who will write the story?”
“Uncle Hryhir, of course!”
“And who is he?”
Well, he is Uncle Hryhir, a friend of my father’s. I falteringly begin to describe how he looks, what he says when he sees me, but I see that I fail to bring across to these people what a nice person he is, and my joy starts to wilt. It keeps shrinking until almost nothing is left of it, except for a little cute furry something hiding in my chest. I feel intimidated and a little put out. And I ask myself, Who is Uncle Hryhir, really?
“I was born into a family of peasants, Mykhailo V. Tyutyunnyk and Hanna M. Tyutyunnyk (nee Syvokin) on December 5 1931. Both of my parents worked in a kolhosp [collective farm]; my father did some carpetentering, mowing and other odd jobs, and studied secretly to qualify for entering a teachers’ training college.
In 1933 [during the Great Famine], our family were starving, we were all bloated with hunger. I was eighteen-months old then, and I lost the ability to walk, to smile, and even to talk. In 1937, my father who was forty then, was arrested as “a politically suspect person” and sent off to the far-off Siberia [to a concentration camp] where he moved from one place to another in that vast inhospitable land.”
That’s what Tyutyunnyk wrote in his Autobiography.
It was only in 1957 that Tyutyunnyk’s father was exonerated of all the charges and rehabilitated — posthumously.
Shortly after his father’s arrest, the six-year old boy travelled to the Land of Donbas where his father’s brother, Filimon, lived. The boy joined his uncle’s family. He started his schooling at a Ukrainian school but a couple of weeks later, the school was closed down and he had to attend classes at a school where the language of tuition was Russian.
“Soon after the war broke out [in June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union], my Aunt gave birth to a baby girl and my Uncle was drafted into the army. In 1942, we began to starve again. To survive, I ate potato peelings and acorns. Our neighbours who saw the plight of our family, advised me to write a letter to my mother [and inform her that I was on my way back to her] who lived in the Land of Poltavshchyna [where food was not so scarce]. I did as I was advised…”
It was a long way to go for an eleven-year old boy with three years of primary-school education. In his bag he had nine pieces of dry bread and a little jar of honey that someone kind-hearted gave him. The boy walked most of the way. When he ran out of food, he had to beg for it. It took him two weeks to get to the place where his mother lived. Much later, he wrote a novel, Klymko, based on his reminiscences of this incredible journey.
“I can write only digging into my recollections,” reads one of the entries in Tyutyunnyk’s diary. He was of the opinion that a person who had not lived through hard times and had not suffered would not be able to write a forceful, dramatic book; a writer, he thought, is born only out of love, suffering and dolour, and there was no other way to becoming a good writer but only through these experiences.
When he worked as a literary editor for the Publishing House Molod, he tried to be patient and forbearing, but sometimes he failed, especially when talking to aggressive, talentless authors.
After reading a manuscript by a “heartless” scribbler, a conversation like the one below could develop during the discussion of the demerits of the manuscript with its ungifted and obtuse author:
“May I ask you something? Do you, my dear fellow, have a heart?”
“Of course I do! Like any other living creature I have a heart!”
“And did your heart ever ache when you were writing?”
“No, it did not. I have absolutely no complaints as far as my health is concerned.”
“So why did you think you could write books? With that perfect health of yours you should apply to be admitted to a cosmonauts’ school!”
However, Tyutyunnyk was truly happy to discover a manuscript “with fresh thoughts and genuine emotions.” Then he would exclaim, “This one is surely a budding and promising author! Now the main thing is not to squander this literary talent on trifles!”
Tyutyunnyk was a very demanding editor. He put as high demands on others as did on himself. If he saw any mealy-mouthedness, disingenuousness, half-heartedness or falsehood in a piece of fiction, he would reject it or would plainly state what he thought of it. “Clay thoughts — clay words.” Rejecting a manuscript, he would sometimes invent a reason — “A new government resolution has been taken not to publish books which are below a certain standard” — to cushion the shock of rejection. But whenever he happened to read a deeply original and talented book, he was overjoyed. He highly appreciated books like Lebedyna zgraya (Swan Flock) by Vasyl Zemlyak or Marusya Churay by Lina Kostenko.
“I can’t understand what’s happening with me — I’ve begun to be tired of words. Yes, tired of words, and the reason for this lies not on the surface but deeper, it is buried in my soul. I understand it well. For graphomaniacs [literary hacks], it is so easy to write. Recently, I’ve read a book one by one of those. His writing is facile, nimble and very cheerful, as cheerful as a rooster on his perch among his hens. What a breed are those cursed cheerful authors! They have no doubts about anything, and least of all in themselves…
It’s too bad I feel so fatigued — everything else is set for good writing; I see things clearly, everything is transparent to me, all the details are clear-cut, and doubts which used to torment me, have now become a great help to me.”
Words are like beads that are put on a string. A string of words makes a sentence; a sentence can carry a thought. You choose beads of different colours, strings of different lengths, and with them you try to express different ideas. In this essay I’ve been trying hard to find the right words to describe the enigma of a creative person, to comprehend the miracle of creative writing. As I was concentrating on arranging my thoughts, turning them into words, my train of thoughts was many times interrupted by unexpected, sparkling reminiscences that came from the depths of my memory, from my childhood. I recollect, for example, that once, I woke up in the middle of the night…
Opening my eyes I discern branches of an apple tree that grows in front of the window; I hear a voice coming from the other room and at first I can’t either recognize the voice or comprehend the words. The voice is full of passion and inspiration. I can see a strip of light under the door. The voice grows more passionate, more permeated with feeling and pain. I climb out of bed, fumblingly push the door open, and blinking against the light, I see several people who sit around the table and Uncle Hryhir is reading apparently one of his stories. He is fully absorbed in what he is doing, oblivious of anything around him. My mother runs up to me, picks me up into her arms and carries me away back to bed. And though the reading continues, it does not bother me any longer, and I sink back into sleep, the words of a story, Three Cuckoo Birds with Songs and Kind Regards, of which I understood then but little, sounding like a lullaby.
It is only now, many years later, that I have come to appreciate what a happiness it was to be falling asleep to a lullaby like that.
“I, evidently, belong to the type of writers who are called ‘naive.’ I’m often asked, What is it you are working at now? Which theme are you exploring? I’ve never explored any themes, I’ve always worked with feelings and emotions that live in me and around me…
I’m idealistic and this idealism of mine is in my expecting people to be good. That is why I am totally undiplomatic in my relations with people, I am so open and outspoken with people that it probably looks like my naivete; and at the same time, I’m sick and tired of everything, I’m so much disappointed and so depressed...
Yes, fatigue overwhelms me… no wind is blowing into my sails any longer to push me forward. Instead, it’s a contrary wind. And I’m forced to use oars. I’ve been rowing against an increasing wind for long now. And I’m tired. I’m using all my strength, I’m rowing as hard as I can, but I’m moving very slowly, and I’m not waiting for a favourable wind any longer. It dissipates my energy… There’s no despair in me, but neither is there much drive or inspiration left…”
Though he had had long established himself as a writer of great significance, the 1970s turned out to be a hard time for Tyutyunnyk. Every short story he wrote was, in the eyes of the Soviet censors, suspicious, though on the surface there was nothing overtly anti-Soviet in Tyutyunnyk’s stories. But they were “wrong kind of stories” because there was no Soviet fanfaronade, false heroics or bombast in them, there was no usual Soviet claptrap and rodomontade, no pompous praise of doubtful achievements. On the contrary, Tyutyunnyk’s stories reflected life in a penetrating, truthful fashion, something the communist authorities were so much afraid of. Some of Tyutyunnyk’s stories which were at first allowed for publication, were prevented from appearing in print at the last stage. In 1978, the Soviet authorities forbade literary critics even mention his name in their essays in periodicals. One of the leading critics of that time who had in his essay a paragraph with Tyutyunnyk’s name in it deleted, asked the writer when they met, “What’s wrong with you?’ to which Tyutyunnyk replied, “You should ask what’s wrong with them…”
Practically everything Tyutyunnyk wrote was carefully scrutinised at the higher echelons of Soviet power by “those responsible for preserving the purity of Soviet Ukrainian literature.” No kind words were ever said about Tyutyunnyk, no words of praise or support; instead, abuse was heaped on him, his writings were called “harmful”, “unjust” in their description of the Soviet life which was supposed to be so sunny and full of boisterous cheer. The 1970s, the time of not so distant past, were in this country so hard and bleak not only for Hryhir Tyutyunnyk — every honest person, every suffering soul felt their oppressive, smothering weight.
“I’m not afraid of death, but I fear life that will have been lived fruitlessly.
I keep asking myself — What do you need The Truth for? I reply to myself: In order to know what’s the truth and what’s a lie. And what do you want to know that for? In order to go and fight against them and get punched in the mug. Nothing hurts more than falsehood. That’s why I hate it so much, that’s why I’m in a constant search for The Truth…
Only those who are without sin or those who have no scruples never feel pangs of conscience.”
That evening my father was standing outside near our house. When I heard a car drive up, I rushed to the window and pressing my nose to the glass, peered into the dusk. A man I did not know stepped out of the car, came up to my father and began telling him something. He must have been in a hurry since he left very soon. My father remained standing where he was. The way he stood there made me worried. I ran out of the house and when I got close to my father I was shocked to see, for the first time in my life, my father weep. His tears were scanty but there was so much pain and grief in his face. I felt completely at a loss, scared, disoriented. My heart beat fast and there was a big lump in my throat. “Daddy, Daddy, what’s happened?”
“O my dearest, Hryhir Tyutyunnyk died,” was all he was able to say. And he turned away. I stood riveted to the spot, not knowing what to do or what to say, not quite comprehending the enormity of what death was. I involuntarily felt fear, fear of death. It was the first time death had entered my world. At last, I managed to ask, “Why, why?”
“Why what?” my father said slowly.
“Why are you crying?” It was not the proper question to ask, I knew it, but I wanted to put so much into it — my incomprehension, my despair, my attempt to understand what was it in that man who had died to make my father cry. My whole adolescent world began to crumble around me. The sight of my weeping father was more than I could bear. But my father failed — for the first time — to understand the complexity of my feelings — he thought I was too juvenile yet to understand the irreversibility of death.
“I’ll be all right, my dear. Go back home.”
And I went back into the house, not knowing what to do with my utter confusion. Only years later, after I read Tyutyunnyk’s writings, I came to understand what made my father cry… Still later, I made another step in understanding life and death when my father, lying paralized in bed, suffering greatly from loneliness, dying to see somebody who would pay him a visit, to call him on the phone, eager to talk to anybody about anything, whispered, opening his eyes and staring into the ceiling, “If Hryhir were alive, he’d come to be with me…”
“Everyone wants the sun to be shining in their window… Everything can be explained — in due time. It is worth living and suffering for it…
If after my death, life will go on, why should I despair?”