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Ukrainian writer Pavlo Zahrebelny and his legacy
Mykhailo Slaboshpytsky, a prominent Ukrainian literary critic, pays homage to Pavlo Zahrebelny, one of the leading figures in Ukrainian literature of the late twentieth century.
Pavlo Zahrebelny was born in the village of Soloshyne, the Land of Poltavshchyna, on August 25 1924. He graduated from secondary school in 1941; after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Pavlo Zahrebelny joined the army as a volunteer. He was wounded; after his release from hospital, he went back to the front, was wounded again in 1942 and was captured by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW concentration camp, and upon his release returned to Ukraine where he was detained and grilled by the Soviet Security Service (the soviets regarded those who had been captured by the Germans “traitors to their Socialist Motherland”).
After his release, he matriculated at the Department of Philology, the University of Dnipropetrovsk. Upon graduation, he worked as a journalist.
He made his way up through the ranks to editor-in-chief of the Literaturna Ukrayina newspaper; starting from the early 1960s, he devoted himself mostly to writing novels; two of his novels, Pervomist and Smert’ u Kyevi (Death in Kyiv) were awarded the Shevchenko State Prize.
Pavlo Zahrebelny wrote several screenplays which were made into films at the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Studio in Kyiv.
Zahrebelny’s novel Roksolana (a story about a young Ukrainian woman who becomes wife of a Turkish sultan), published in the 1980s, was a national bestseller which was translated into many languages.
Pavlo Zahrebelny, who became a living classic of Ukrainian literature, was called “a Ukrainian Don Quixote,” who tried hard to get his message across to the people, “to knock at their heart, to be heard,” even at the time when nobody seemed to listen. His novels, written at the closing stages of his writing career, mostly dealt with burning social and cultural issues of today, and they are marked by a great deal “of nervous tension.”
Pavlo Zahrebelny died on February 3 2009.
Pavlo Arkhypovych Zahrebelny has left us for the better world — but his departure is a great loss for us. I felt I did not want to write a standardized obituary, which would list the prizes the recently deceased was awarded during his lifetime, and which would only rub the salt into the open wound. So I’ll try to write something else…
First of all, it must be said that he represented a whole epoch in the Ukrainian literature. When he worked for the Moloda Ukrayina (Young Ukraine) periodical, he had his writings published on the pages of this periodical, and later had them published in the book series Bibliotechka Molodoyi Ukrayiny (Small Library of Young Ukraine), which had been founded and run by Moloda Ukrayina. As a journalist, he conducted probing interviews at the time when Ukraine was living through hard times, and though these interviews, which dealt mostly with the then political situation in Ukraine, were usually very candid and revealing, they invariably found their way to publication, despite the displeasure of the soviet authorities. One of such interviews was headed, “The Main Thing — Independence Now” (at the end of the 1990s nobody was sure yet which way the Soviet Union would go — towards collapse or dictatorship — tr.). This interview is a proud exhibit in the museum of the Moloda Ukrayina newspaper. Zahrebelny’s writings were a sort of benchmark against which the honest people could judge their own aspirations. But in his later years, Zahrebelny did not do any journalistic work — in fact, he did not socialize much even with his friends — he devoted himself totally to his writing. He kept saying that there was a lot he had to say but there was little time to do it…
Zahrebelny made a big splash with his novel Dyvo (Marvel) which was published in 1968. It was then that many people — me included — realized that there emerged a major writer in Ukraine. The novel was like a literary fresco which portrayed the events that spanned a thousand years from the time of Kyivan Rus, through WWII and down to our days. The novel proved to be a sort of a breakthrough in the then Ukrainian literature. It introduced a precedent, it opened the way for other writers to follow in creating phantasmagoric combinations of events in their prose. They had for a guide Pavlo Zahrebelny, who was a trail blazer, an ingenious and daring originator of new approaches to prose writing.
He kept writing one novel after another, and each of the novels was an intellectual feast; each novel probed deeply into life and history — Zahrebelny continued to move freely through the ages, taking the readers from the hot issues of the current moment to the deep layers of history, and then back. There was no one else who could rival him in these vertiginous plunges. He was blessed with encouraging literary successes — but he suffered painful failures too as it happens with anyone who is endowed with a great talent, who is not shy about taking risks, who does not have a fear of heights, and who keeps raising their own standards ever higher. Others who are more moderate in their creative aspirations, watch their step, linger before they make a move, assess carefully chances of success or failure — but Zahrebelny was not like this. He wanted to soar, even though the flight could prove to be fraught with great risks.
Nobody among the Ukrainian writers wrote as much as he did.
Somerset Maugham once gave writers this piece of advice: go ahead, write a lot, do not be put off by not having all of your writings published — your unpublished books will be the foundation of the ones that will go to print. I do not know whether Zahrebelny knew about this advice, but he seems to have followed a very similar line in his writing career. Among Zahrebelny’s top achievements are Pervomist, Yevpraksiya, Roksolana, Ya, Bohdan, Tysyacholitny Mykolay, Rozhin, DenÕ dlya prydeshnyoho, and Yuliya. Any of these novels could launch any other Ukrainian writer to literary fame.
Zahrebelny’s talents were of the kind that could make him a great mathematician, historian, philosopher, or a statesman. He was one of those people whom God granted an enormous potential. Zahrebelny once admitted that it was a pure chance that brought him to study at the Philological Department of the University of Dnipropetrovsk. He had fought in the Second World War as an artillery officer, he had spent a time in a German concentration camp, he survived. After the war, when he saw an advertisement of enrollment to a university’s department of philology, he thought of philology as a branch of scholarship with the capital P that encompassed a wide spectrum of studies. It turned out that that particular department he matriculated at was oriented mostly towards the study of language and history of literature, with no or little creative writing involved. He was disappointed at first, but access to the library well stocked with books proved to be a redeeming feature. Thus he was initiated into the cohort of those who profess the religion of the Book.
I think Zahrebelny’s infatuation with books deserves a separate article. Among the books he read and reread were the Bible and the Koran, books that contained myths and legends of the Native Americans and of the Scandinavians, medieval chronicles and books on history, ancient, medieval and modern. He was an avid reader. Among the authors he read were Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas Mann and William Faulkner — the list is too long to be presented here but it included all the “classics” of the ancients and of the moderns, plus many controversial authors too.
Zahrebelny indulged in a sort of a creative dialogue with the authors of the past and of the present, he used quotations from them as arguments in discussions about literature, but he was never slavish in his preferences, he was always independent in his views and never avoided disputes.
For writing one book he would read a whole library of books. He was one of those literati who are often called “high-brow” but it concerned his preparatory research for a book rather than his style of writing.
His knowledge of the Ukrainian literature was encyclopedic — it ranged from the early medieval times down to the present-day, including the books of the youngest generation of Ukrainian writers. He once stated that “Literature opens unlimited possibilities for salvation from the destructive forces of time; as its instruments, literature has the Word and the Memory, its precious depository. The Word soars above the turbulences of the world though it is born out of them, it stands above them, it gives them significance, and even harmony. The flow, fugacity and evanescence of being are not only noticed and described by literature — they are also arranged by literature in comprehensive systems so that disparate parts form a harmonious whole. Isn’t it what the humans want to have? Are not our hopes, heroism, destiny and greatness born out of this search for harmony? And if it is so, then the writers’ work in the service of the Word brings happiness and great responsibility!”
Zahrebelny combined in himself, the way extraordinary people do, things which seem to be incompatible. He was a decisive, even headstrong person, but at the same time he could be sensitive and considerate to the point of being soft on those he cared for. At times, he seemed to be romantically sentimental in the old-fashioned way.
Zahrebelny appreciated other people’s talents, he provided his support, he promoted people in whom he discerned talent. Many people can consider to have been his proteges — I am among them too. He was a sort of literary Godfather to me.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of envy among the literati, and some writers think that they have been robbed of the glory they deserve, that somebody eclipses them unfairly, but Zahrebelny never had any envy in him — his was a noble spirit, he was always overjoyed to meet talented people. He stood up in defense of the talented against the mediocre; he did his best to encourage the talented to feel free, or to do their best, to develop their talents to the outmost. He was protective of the talented.
“Only politicians and writers have a precious opportunity of expressing the message they want to get across to the people more or less fully — so it would be very unreasonable for a writer to ignore such an opportunity,” said Zahrebelny, and it seems he has expressed himself to the full extent. He did in literature what he thought he should do without regard to critics’ opinions, without trying to ingratiate himself with anybody. “Only politicians and writers have such a vast power over the people,” he added. Politicians establish their power over people by means of the military force, or police, or binding laws, whereas writers’ power comes from a totally different source — their power comes from their ability to look into the hearts and souls of people and thus makes their message heard. Zahrebelny’s message has been heard. He was like a leader who is full of a daring spirit and who leads a great army of his readers.
His writings were translated and published in many countries of the world, even in those which culture is totally different from Ukrainian culture, like China, for example. And his message was understood there too.
In his interviews, Zahrebelny mentioned that he had met and befriended John Updike (1932–2009; Updike was one of the leading American writers of novels, short stories, and poetry, best known for his careful craftsmanship and realistic but subtle depiction of “American, Protestant, small-town, middle-class” life). He even visited Updike in the United States and Updike came to visit Zahrebelny in Ukraine.
John Updike had died a week before Zahrebelny passed away. It could be just a coincidence but I think there was something mystical in these two deaths following one after the other with such a short gap between them. When death is involved, certain things acquire the aura of special significance and even rather morbid symbolism.
When I hear someone say, “There are no irreplaceable people,” I bristle with indignation (this statement comes from the time of the soviet totalitarian regime — tr.). There are, of course, people who are absolutely irreplaceable, and Zahrebelny is one of such people. He was unique, no one can replace him.
All that I, still doleful and seeking a consolation for my grieving soul, can add now is this — Thank you, Pavlo, thank you for having been with us. You will stay not only in Who’s Who encyclopedias, not only in books that you have left behind — you will stay in my heart.
Photos have been provided by the National Union
of Writers of Ukraine and from the archives
of Pavlo Zahrebelny’s family
Pavlo Zahrebelny, a 9th-grade student.
Pavlo Zahrebelny and I. Hladun. Germany, May 1945.
From left to right: Pavlo Zahrebelny, Oles Honchar,
novelist, and Platon Voron’ko, poet. 1970s.
Pavlo Zahrebelny and Ella, his future wife.
Pavlo Zahrebelny and his admirers. 1980s.
Pavlo Zahrebelny in his study. Kyiv, fall of 1968.
An illustration by Vasyl Perevalsky
for the novel Dyvo.[Prev][Contents][Next]