||Where Crisis Iscommonplace
by Janice Keefer
BUSINESS," I declare tothe man at Customs. For one does not Come to Kiev these days, and at thisseason, for pleasure. He doesn`t ask me what kind of business, and for that Iam grateful. How could I explain that I`m here to find out whether anything ofthe Kiev I made up for a novel I started six months ago bears a resemblance tothe world I`ve just entered?
My family is from Ukraine; because of thevividness of my mother`s stories about the village of her childhood, I feetthat I should know this place I`ve never seen; that in some important way I`mreturning, not venturing into foreign territory. But my mother`s stories aboutstorks on thatched roofs have nothing at all to do with Kiev, the capital ofancient Rus` and present-day Ukraine. Nothing she has told me, or whatold Kiev hands in Toronto have divulged, have prepared me for this.
Culture shock is as good --or meaningless -- a term for it as anything. It`s largely my ownfault: I don`t know the language well enough to function on my own here. Whatvocabulary I do have is outdated; declensions, conjugations freeze on my tongueso that the words I manage to pronounce are shapeless as raw dough. But evenhad I been perfectly fluent, I would have needed all this paraphernalia: aguide to take me round the city, to pick me up from and deliver me again to theapartment whose door I must double-lock. Conditions here can be dangerousfor strangers; "taxi-driver" has become slang for"murderer" and vultures hang around the currency exchange kiosks. Andso, for the next five days as I tour the city, I am escorted and chaperonedtill I feel I`m under a permissive form of house arrest.
I do not see the sun once. The sky isporridge, and I have to imagine skeletal trees into the splurge of green thatshould transform the city, come summer, the season in which my novel is set. Ican`t conceive of what colour the Dnipro River will be in seven months` time.Now its the colour of dirty milk; irradiated dirty milk, since the Dnipro flowsthrough Chernobyl on its way to Kiev. I toy with the idea of shifting mynovel`s Kievan scenes to early winter, since my efforts at imagining June inNovember prove as hopeless as my earlier invention of an unknown city, of awhole culture and texture of everyday life, from books and conversations.
It`s not just the gap between seasonsthat makes me decide, after two hours in Ukraine, to undo my written fiction ofKiev, erase it the way people here have started to remove the names of Leninand his company from their streets and buildings. What I`ll have to do over thenext hundred hours will be to read the city the way you would a book in aforeign language for which you`ve no dictionary but your rapt desire tounderstand.
Rapt -- not because there`sanything mystical about this place, but because the strangeness, thedifferences I`m absorbing with every pore of my skin possess me. It`s not because food can be hard to findthat I hardly eat during my stay - - I am cramming in so manyimpressions every minute that the apples and sandwiches with which my guideprovides me end up pyramided on a plate in the refrigerator, or languishing ina coat pocket, to he thrown guiltily away on the return flight to Frankfurt. Isimply have no room in me for any other kind of food than what is Visual,verbal.
For eight hours at a stretch we walk thelength and breadth and height of Kiev, taking the funicular up the hill to St.Andrew`s Church, then petting down the break-a-leg steepcobblestones into Podol, the ancient part of the city. Sometimes we walk past the azure-and-goldfacade of the Mariyansky Palace and along the wooded paths to the summit of St.Volodymyr`s Hill, where I stand looking out to the haze that`s all I ever seeof the Dnipro. Always I have my notebook to hand, my pen screeching andslamming over the pages like a runaway trolleybus. Later I transcribe it allinto something resembling legibility. Pages and pages, far into the night, longafter my guide has seen me home and waited in the lightless corridor while Idouble-lock the apartment door. Lightless because of the energy shortageand because light-bulbs are so scarce that any to be found in publicplaces are immediately unscrewed and pocketed for home consumption.
I write this detail of daily life into mynotebook, the first night of my visit: changescene where E meets A -- have them ride up five floors in a creaking,blacked-out elevator to his apartment; root the extreme claustrophobia Efeels throughout her stay in Kiev in this panic of closure. The remaining nights, Imake similar revisions, always with an obscene sense of privilege. I know I canleave this city whenever I want, unlike my guide and the people I meet at theWriters` Union, the university,all of whom will never in a whole lifetime of work make enough money to coverthe cost of the two-hour plane ride from Kiev to Frankfurt. What`s more,I`ll he returning to a place where paper seems made to be wasted. At my meetingwith the head of the Writers` Union, I discover one of thefundamental problems of being awriter here: there is no paper to be printed on. Paper comes from Russia, andthe Russians are charging world prices for paper, as they are for oil.
We are sitting together at a mahoganytable under an ornately carved and gilded ceiling; huge ceramictiled stoves,unlit, grace the corners of the room.Given these princely vestiges of privilege, I can`t help thinking of the prisoncamps to which a whole generation of dissident Ukrainian writers was sentencedin the 1960s. For more than 300 years, Ukraine was a colony of the Russianempire, Tsarist or Soviet, the development of its literary culture arrested bysuch coups as Alexander II`s 1876 ukaz, which for some 30 years banned the useof Ukrainian in publishing, education, and the theatre, and the Stalinistpurges of the 1930s, which, according to some estimates, liquidated more thanthree-quarters of Ukraine`s authors, artists, and linguistic scholars.Add to this the catastrophic human losses suffered through the Famine and themassacres at Babyn Yar, and now, the likely effects of Chernobyl, and the veryfact that this nation and its culture have survived at all begins to seemmiraculous. Whether that culture, renewing itself through contact with the long-forbiddenWest, is able to make itself truly inclusive of thepeople of Ukraine --the ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, and other minorities who votedoverwhelmingly for independence in 1991 -- is a question thepresent horror in the former Yugoslavia makes more than academic.
For any Canadian writer, a visit to Kievwill be sobering. Wherever you walk, you seem to be stepping on somebody`sbones. Reminders of a historic battle to keep an oppressed language and culturealive. Pointers to the current struggle just to put on paper the realities ofliving where extremity is the norm, and every kind of crisis commonplace.