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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 B02

Jaroslavas Melnikas’s The Last Day (2018, Noir Press Ltd, translation into English by Marija Marcinkute) is a short story collection that sends the reader into the realm of the surreal. A granny ages backwards, an artist/musician’s house shrinks until he’s forced into ever smaller spaces, a traveler goes on a journey without knowing what his destination is, and the Earth’s population is suddenly presented with a list of the dates that everyone alive will die. Within Melnikas’s world, environments act upon the characters rather than the other way around, and it’s the protagonists’ lack of agency and control that creates the neurotic loops in which they find themselves.

The recipient of the BBC Book of the Year (Ukraine) award, Melnikas’s collection has been received with praise from his home audience. So how does the English-language version hold up?

Marcinkute’s translation is generally strong and smooth. Sentence breaks occur naturally, and except for a few hiccups, a native English speaker would hardly realize this was a translation at all.

That doesn’t necessarily mean The Last Day is an easy read. The themes it deals with are uncomfortable. The characters question their sanity, either embrace meaningless orders or fight against lack of control, ponder the concept of fate, and observe how single seemingly good actions can change the space they inhabit or others’ reactions. They are helpless in environments or bodies that change without any observable reason and can only watch as the known world become strange. Their relationships with supporting characters are tenuous and mercurial, too—the character themselves or their life becomes too bizarre for a spouse or relative to deal with, and the protagonist is left to figure out what comes next on their own.

These themes of loneliness, powerlessness, and being at the mercy of a world with a cruel sense of humor are not out of place in literature from the former Soviet world. “The Grand Piano Room” is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of such a perspective for a Western reader tangentially familiar with the history of the USSR. In this story, a creative person who once had enough rooms in his house to follow all of his passions is squeezed into increasingly smaller living quarters until he is incapable of practicing his art. After each reduction, his wife reminds him that nothing has changed and that they have always lived in such surroundings—even though we see the walls closing in and feel the artist’s bewilderment, his wife is oblivious and blithely accepting of the circumstances. This Soviet nightmare scenario of ever more cramped spaces works on both a literal and figurative level: while the artist is physically constrained as rooms disappear, shrink, and fill with people, the story is a commentary on how creativity can be constricted by a situation that doesn’t permit it to meaningfully thrive. As we know, the inability to be artistically free was an issue for many creative individuals under the Soviet regime.

The stories in this collection pick up similar threads of either unwilling or voluntary relinquishment of power—and its consequences—in various iterations. The man who blindly follows orders as he goes on his “important” journey in “On the Road” is happy enough to be clothed and fed even if he becomes a stranger to those he once loved. He is convinced of the significance of his actions and the authority of those sending him on his way, though he is unquestioning. We might see this as a metaphor for a bureaucrat, a soldier, or even a modern office worker. In “The End,” an elderly woman regresses physically and mentally, regaining her youth but losing her connection to important people in her life, until she is nothing but a clump of cells cradled in the womb of an animal “much more powerful than herself.”

In the eponymous and introductory story of the book, “The Last Day,” The Book of Fates is introduced as a list of the dates when everyone on Earth will eventually die. This causes people to question the nature of life and death and to begin to believe more firmly in a divine power. Ultimately, however, their existences change little. They understand that work must be done to bring in money, food must be put on the table, and children must go to school. In short, daily routine must continue to be adhered to. But then they begin to realize that the Book of Fates may be losing its power. The protagonist’s son survives his predicted date of death and people suddenly become free of the burdensome knowledge that hangs over them. It may be too literal to interpret the story as an analogy to an oppressive regime overseen by a seemingly “divine” leader with the ability to determine individuals’ deaths and the eventual demise of that regime, but it is likewise tempting to do so.

While a reader without a background in twentieth-century Eastern European history might not make these connections, they can still react to the main themes as they apply to a twenty-first-century lifestyle. Furthermore, while often collections of stories feel compiled as an afterthought, the stories’ quality varying and their topics unconnected, The Last Day is cohesive—perhaps too cohesive because the stories are so similar in tone, presentation, and intent. The stories all share the same narrative voice. One principle writers often strive for is to “show” rather than “tell.” But there is a lot of telling in these pages despite the endless display of imagination: characters’ actions are bluntly recorded, their thoughts are revealed baldly. Details do not stand out, and the language is bland. This flatness in tone perhaps mimics the psychological state of the characters, but the unflinching sameness bears down on the reader. In this way, the book may feel unsatisfying to an audience that craves a richer reading experience. However, thoughtful readers will be drawn to make connections between Melnikas’s stories and the real world—whether current or past—and will consider the scenarios he presents long after they have closed the book.

 

 

 

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