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Professor bringing important Ukrainian novel to Western audiences

Thursday, November 21, 2019


LAWRENCE – As the locus of the current impeachment drama, Ukraine is in all the headlines these days. A University of Kansas professor hopes that makes the ground more fertile for his native country’s most celebrated recent novel, which he is translating into English and otherwise working to popularize in the West.

For the past two years, with the help of a PEN America grant, Vitaly Chernetsky, associate professor of Slavic languages & literatures and director of KU’s Center for Russian & East European Studies, has been working to translate Sofiia Andrukhovych’s 2014 novel “Felix Austria.” He’s nearly finished.

“I also helped with the film adaptation,” Chernetsky said. “I translated the movie script into English for the producers when they were seeking European funding, and the film is coming out in January. They've just released the trailer online. It looks very good.”

This first movie adaptation, which Chernetsky compared to a Merchant-Ivory production or perhaps “Like Water for Chocolate,” was made in Ukraine for Ukrainians. Chernetsky’s screenplay translation was just for potential backers to read. But Chernetsky clearly believes “Felix Austria” has legs to translate into other languages and productions, not least because the story touches on such enduring issues as class, ethnicity and religion.

During the time in which the book is set, around 1900, what is now western Ukraine was the easternmost part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire and quite the melting pot. The main character, Stefaniia, is an orphan apprenticed to an upper-class family. Though Christian, she falls in love with a Jewish fishmonger. And so on.

“It’s in the style of a historic film,” Chernetsky said, “but with a woman-centric angle. Also, it shows the diversity of that society, because there are people of many different ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations.”

Chernetsky said that new opportunities to promote the book have emerged with the launch in October of a new program called Translate Ukraine.

“Unlike a lot of other European countries, Ukraine until recently did not have programs to support translations of contemporary Ukrainian literature into other languages, but they just launched this program internationally at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and this was one of the featured books,” he said. “So, as a result of Frankfurt, several presses have expressed interest.”

Chernetsky also published an article, “Sofiia Andrukhovych’s Felix Austria: the postcolonial neo-Gothic and Ukraine’s search for itself,” in the most recent edition of the journal Canadian Slavonic Papers. In it, he explained why the book became a hit in Ukraine following the 2013 Euromaidan protests and 2014 Ukrainian revolution.

“The narrative evolution of Stefaniia can be described as a process of moving from a dependent, social/relational type of identity to self-determination – in other words, as an assertive postcolonial identity transformation,” Chernetsky wrote. “This image undoubtedly resonated with many of the novel’s first readers, as they had very recently lived through the fiery trauma of the final violent days of the Euromaidan and the toppling of the Yanukovych government. For them, too, the moment in which they were living was the first breath of new freedom, a great turning point towards a new potential – even if soon fundamentally complicated by Russian intervention and the ongoing war. It affirmed the possibility of liberation, even if it remained haunted by past traumas.”

Americans and other English speakers may like the book, Chernetsky said, “because a lot of people have East European roots, whether they consciously explore them or not. In this country we are a nation of immigrants. In this book, it shows you the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not from the perspective of Vienna, but from its eastern outskirts. But it actually probably was no less than and maybe even more diverse than the capital, Vienna, itself, because we have people who speak Ukrainian, Polish, German and Yiddish. We have people who are Jewish and Christian, and the Christians are Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox. So they're different faiths, different ethnic groups, different languages, and they all exist together in this one town.”

The novel has a touch of magical realism, Chernetsky wrote, noting that the neo-Gothic is “a very popular type of writing, especially that a lot of younger people pick up on.”

“It has an assertive message about a strong female protagonist while also keeping us in suspense because we are not sure what exactly is going to happen to her in the course of the book. I think this makes it a good page-turner.”

Photo: Detail from poster of Ukrainian film version of the novel “Felix Austria.” Courtesy: Film.UA Group