Yevheniya Kononenko
April 2011

Text Without Context

She is an emanation of Christ during His temporary absence from this earth.
When Christ comes again, Lina Kostenko will hand back her powers to Him.

Iryna Farion

...We can’t let go of personalities.
...For literature, this is a catastrophe.

Yuriy Kucheriavyi, a member of the Lviv “literary circle”

The text of Lina Kostenko’s novel Diary of a Ukrainian Madman is soldered to its perception to such an extent that to separate it without rupturing its essence is nearly impossible. Hyped-up performances of Ukraine’s №1 poet in drama and opera theaters, then the cancellation of a book tour in Ukraine because a certain Lviv “literary circle” scandalously trashed Diary, all of which was written up in Ukraine's major papers — all this created such a furor that reading the book without prejudice of one kind or another has become very difficult. There was a point when any public discussion of Diary became just about impossible because Lina Kostenko rouses near-religious fervor among her readers. She may not have the status of a saint, but she is definitely among the prophets. One cannot, therefore, criticize her writing; one can only interpret it or, better yet, drink it into one's soul and read it before going to bed, like a prayer. In the eyes of the celebrated poet's defenders any criticism of Diary is automatically treated as defamation or even desecration, and these critics are treated as, at best, pathetic pygmies trying to feel taller by knocking down a titan—at worst, enemies playing into the hands of an anti-Ukrainian government.

Still, offered endless commentary on Diary, and not just glorifying rhetoric, appeared in various media outlets. Just about all of Ukraine’s literary elites, not just those from Lviv, felt obliged to react to the prose debut of the great Ukrainian poet. Each tried to say something original about Diary, to point out certain aspects to the novel that no one else had previously noted. Moreover, the media themselves, both printed and on the internet, encouraged this kind of wild response to the popular book in order to have a variety of opinions on their pages. The authors of these various pieces therefore competed—and continue to compete—as to who is best able to penetrate the second and third layers of the text, to find its matrix and codes.

Critical responses,and not a few, did appear. But even those who had little positive to say about Diary—at least those who published their thoughts in the press, not just in private blogs—also seem unable to go beyond context. No matter what they write, the mighty persona of the author looms and critics of her novel, despite themselves, feel the need to apologize for having read something not quite apropos into the text. After all, even those who are critical of Diary generally share the patriotic sensibilities that the author has so vividly reinforced! Just an overview of how Ukraine has reacted to Diary could turn into a kind of informal survey. The exact same quotes are used to both illustrate the genius of the novel and poke fun at it—an absurdity that is the by-product of a novel about Ukrainian and universal absurdity. Indeed, public reaction to Diary is wide-ranging: some think the book a “life-saving electric shock” and “an x-ray of the contemporary Ukrainian soul,” while others call it “the toothless, angry, slobbery hissing of an old woman on a park bench.” And between those two extremes lies the entire spectrum of readings of this provocative book.

My purpose here is not an overview of the reviews, because the lion’s share, it is worth noting, is motivated by the person and not the text. What makes a book...

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