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Jaroslavas Melnikas (born 1959) is a presence in at least three cultures. He was born in Ukraine, and his earlier work (both literary and academic/critical) began there and in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. He is a great Francophile, and some of his novels was published by a major French publisher. And life has brought him to Lithuania, which he adopted and adjusted to with success that is hard to believe. He has written several novels and numerous pieces of shorter fiction in a language that is not his mother-tongue!  His work is an interesting mix of complicated philosophical ideas and popular, entertaining genres like sci-fi. The effect has been divisive – some love him, others loathe him. However, leaving no-one indifferent is quite an achievement in itself.

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Jaroslavas Melnikas review 02

Jaroslavas Melnikas (b. 1959) is a writer well known not just in Lithuania but in a cultural broader context: he is a member of both the Lithuanian and the Ukrainian writers’ unions. Born in Western Ukraine, Melnikas, a prose writer, critic, and philosopher, graduated from the Faculty of Philology of Lviv University and later enrolled in the doctoral program of Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. Melnikas’s career has also been diverse: he worked at Lutsk Teacher Training Institute, for the magazines Laima and Moteris, at the literary magazine Novyi Mir (New World) in Moscow, and for the French magazines ELLE and Les Alpes vagabondes. Melnikas is a prolific writer whose  work has been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Azeri, Croatian, Esperanto, and other languages. This reviews is about Melnikas’s latest novel, Dangaus valdovai (Rulers of the Sky, Alma Littera, 2016), his sixteenth book.

Although Melnikas is capable of taking different tones in his books—intriguing, intellectual, wistful, philosophizing, playful, entertaining, and serious—he most frequently writes existential prose, with unfolding of mundane human existence his priority. Critics frequently mention Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortazar as Melnikas’s guiding lights. The interesting thing, in my opinion, is that the existential dimension of his work unfolds most persuasively and beautifully in his dystopian philosophical novels Tolima erdvė (Distant Space) and Maša arba Postfašizmas (Masha or Post-Fascism), which resemble the works of George Orwell (although the author insists that he read Orwell’s famous works after his own novels were published).  In Tolima erdvė, an existential panorama opens through the juxtaposition between distance and proximity. The author reflects on the price of the authentic vision of the world and on the importance of mutual relationship, and questions the values of the “brave new world.” In Maša, he looks back at the not-so-distant political reality and in this context plots the path of the protagonist’s awareness. The saturated drawing of the situation and the characters’ nature reveals the magma at the core of existence. By placing fundamental indicators of existence under a magnifying glass, by inviting the reader to reflect on the essential issues of human existence, the writer raises the most relevant issues both to the futuristic-fictional literary personage as well as to the reader. In one interview[1],  the author claims that his dystopian worlds lean against a stark reality: “to me, life is like a metaphor, a symbol. It is a metaphor. Both in my short prose, in Tolima erdvė [...], and in Maša, I seemingly invent worlds, when actually it is our world in which you and I live.” It should be noted, though, that despite the facts mentioned, in the same interview the author says he has trust in the human being, which the endings of his novels confirm.

Such were my thoughts, expectations, and the context with which I began Melnikas’s latest novel Dangaus valdovai (Rulers of the Sky). This book, however, is somewhat different. Although a fantasy element is present (sex with a she-bird), the novel is more allegorical and marks the subject’s relationships with transcendence, God, and spirit, as the author indicates in his preface.

Speaking of the quintessence of Dangaus valdovai, Melnikas argues: “Like in my earlier books, I am concerned about the human mystery, about the relationship between the body and the soul. Who are we? What are we made of? How are we to live in this world, ‘at the bottom,’ amidst bubbling desires? This is a novel about a human’s love for a she-bird. But maybe the she-bird lives in each of us?” (p.11).

The central hero of the novel is a philosopher who, with his family—his wife and their two children—retreats to live in mountains. He is an interesting personality, but the literary world has already seen characters like him. Perceived as an eccentric, a misanthrope, and a hermit by others, he insists that it is not people he does not like, but what is low in people. We should note the protagonist’s feeling of superiority over others: he claims he can understand others, while others cannot comprehend him in return.

It is about the life of one individual, about his aspiration to rise “higher,” to turn into “a birdman,” and to thrive above the boundary of human possibilities. In this novel Melnikas yet again makes a sacrifice to the title of the creator of existential prose. The paradigm of a relationship succumbing to the interpretation of Martin Buber’s distinctions I-Thou and I-It becomes the central axis of the novel. Relationships in the novel are numerous and varied: the subject’s relationship with himself, with his wife, with other women, his children, his mother and brother, and finally, with the she-bird, which is a symbol of God, the soul, and transcendence. Aptly and succinctly, the author points to the underlying issues in relationships with others, recording existential alienation and the total impossibility of knowing someone else. He also conveys contempt of the world of the unknown—even if theoretically very close—Other: “… my son and daughter, whom I loved and at the same time unconsciously despised without understanding the meaning of their life” (p. 23). The protagonist’s outlook on the world is penetrating and nihilistic: he claims that, in a sense, he is horrible: “he cannot help seeing people the way they really are” and “feels contempt for everything crude, primitive, and mercantile.” Such gaze of his, touching even the people closest to him, pervades the framework of the novel. The subject’s relation with himself is also ambiguous: he wishes “to rise above this world”; he desires a kindred spirit, transcendence, and a conversation with the Other. On the other hand, when he analyses a dream that is significant in the novel and when he identifies with Prometheus, he articulates one of the key existential truths—“freedom is horror.” In general, compared to other subjects, the protagonist seems to be fairly free, and this is evident in his relationship with the mystical she-bird; however, his inability to disentangle himself from the exigencies of life inevitably leaves a mark on him and causes inner conflict. The inability to be free of this world and its “television” existence or its Big Brother-like surveillance, manifests itself as social critique, a critical look at what is given by the world and at surprising existentialist truths: “I had realized it earlier, yet felt it only now how conditionally our bodies belong to us. We are bodies that we haven’t created ourselves and which live their own life. We are born and we no longer belong to ourselves” (p. 62). Melnikas’s subject is full of contradictions: in one episode he desires his wife yet at the same time he is disgusted by her body. Perception of one’s carnality and interpretation of the aspects of the female body is, in general, another important axis of the novel. While observing and analyzing the blandness of life and estrangement from his wife and children, the subject desires to experience a warming of the I-Thou relationship: “The chat with that woman was probably the only thing that made it worth coming here. Because it emanated something genuine. Well, it was a contact with another soul. A contact of souls, that’s genuine. Because all other chats were badly played roles in a deplorable play” (p. 78). The most authentic moments in the novel are experienced during such “chats of souls.”

The most paradoxical is that the next of kin appear to be the most distant as is shown in the relationships of Artūras, the protagonist, with his wife, children, and brother. To the subject, this existential void is painful: “Why do I have to accept that my daughter, son, and wife—we all, like the expanding universe, are irrevocably moving away from one another?” (p.93). The protagonist records an unpleasant truth during a conversation with his son: they are simply strangers incapable of striking an authentic Buberian relationship. Acquaintances with several women—his fan, an enamored student, and a mysterious woman he meets on the beach—turn out to be access to such a relationship. A certain contradiction emerges here yet again. Although at the beginning the protagonist claims that “my feelings are probably distorted but I found seeing domesticated women content with their lives unpleasant’ (p. 26), later he refers to the married woman he met on the beach as his soulmate. In general, women play an extremely important role in Dangaus valdovai, with Melnikas reflecting on various forms of femininity: they are sisters of the protagonist’s soul, his wife, whose role in the end of the novel is turned at a yet different angle, and a doctor. An episode that stands out in the novel is when after sex with the she-bird the protagonist is brought an egg and he eats it. This is a way to connote several themes: that of merging and fusion with the sacred (like eating Agnus Dei), and that of Cronus devouring his children.

On the one hand, the I-Thou relationship seems to be fulfilled in the novel: intimacy and mutual understanding are achieved. The end of the novel, however, makes the reader doubt the realization of such an authentic I-Thou relationship: the protagonist cannot make himself understood by the vengeful she-bird and eventually shoots her, while his wife tries to commit suicide because she does not receive any attention from her husband.

It took me a long time to figure out what to think of this novel. I am not sure it is Melnikas’s best work. For example, existential truths in previous dystopias were aptly framed by the fantasy chronotope, which supplied an additional—if only external—layer, imparted intrigue to the plot, and spurred the reading on. With the exception of the fantasy motif of the she-bird, the existential truths expressed are almost overt in this novel and that is, in my view, what impoverishes the plot, which I did not find very intriguing in the end. The motif of the bird did not outweigh the boredom of reading. With its existential approach and the discussion of authentic relationships, the book made me think of Tomas Vaiseta’s novel Orfėjas: kelionė pirmyn ir atgal (Orpheus: A Return Journey). Truth be told, I liked the latter more, in which deeper and less bare reflections are better perceived and more convincing. Nonetheless, Melnikas remains a master of prose. Maybe he should search for different themes and ways of expression.

 

 1. http://www.bernardinai.lt/straipsnis/2013-12-11-jaroslavas-melnikas-tik-tiesa-gali-padaryti-zmogu-zmogumi/111164

 

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