Beyond Kotliarevshchyna: Rereading Oleksandr Il'chenko’s Novel The Cossack Never Dies

Polina Rikoun, Harvard University

Kermode famously argued that a literary work can be reborn many times through the “death of the reader,” when one interpretative framework is replaced by some new approach. In such a rebirth, a text--or a whole literary tradition--can be newly acclaimed or rediscovered. One critical framework that deserves to be reevaluated is kotliarevshchyna, applied widely to Ukrainian literature, because it often obscures the very qualities that make many Ukrainian works great. Reading an undeservedly neglected novel by Oleksandr Il'chenko Kozats'komu rodu net perevodu (The Cossack Never Dies, 1958), I will explore hidden dimensions that emerge when the lens of kotliarevshchyna is set aside.

Il'chenko’s tale of Cossack Mamai, set during the 16th century, is now either forgotten or dismissed as typical Socialist Realist doggerel. Critics like Pavlyshyn interpret the novel’s simple narrator literally, as the author’s surrender to the Socialist Realist myth of Ukraine as Russia’s culturally inferior, provincial “younger brother.” But why should we take a Ukrainian simple narrator at face value, when in other traditions this device is held to signal some authorial subterfuge (e.g. Pushkin’s Belkin or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn)? Similarly disguised as a country bumpkin, Il'chenko’s narrator irreverently inverts the “big brother” myth, portraying Russia as the backward sibling of cosmopolitan and artistic Ukraine. This subversive subtext is, however, rendered invisible by the tradition of reading Ukrainian literature in terms of kotliarevshchyna--an interpretation that privileges the home-spun narrative mask over other aspects of the numerous works inspired by Kotliarevs'ky’s 1798 burlesque of The Aeneid. Under the weight of Ukraine’s colonial status, this mask “adheres” to the face, as Grabowicz puts it. The result is a tautological trap: the simple narrator is truly simple-minded because Ukrainian literature is provincial, and Ukrainian literature is provincial because it is full of simple-minded narrators. To avoid being dismissed as unsophisticated, Ukrainian authors must shun the “simple narrator” device, artificially limiting their range of expression upon pain of becoming invisible, as Il'chenko has done.

But if we break these artificial limits, exciting, thus-far hidden dimensions emerge in Ukrainian literature. Read outside of kotliarevshchyna’s framework, Il'chenko’s novel delights us with its provocative complexity. As the narrator’s meta-poetic commentary hints, Ukraine and Russia’s cultural rivalry is only one among the narrative’s many layers, which touch on subjects as diverse as family, religion, and--most intriguingly--art. The novel is populated by antagonistic author-creation pairs, with authors desperately striving to control their rebellious works. Art’s independent existence is at once liberating and dangerous: Mamai’s own drawing of a folk character inexplicably comes to life as the villainous hetman One-Wing, whom Mamai must battle. But given the chance, the adversaries do not destroy each other--why not? And what are we to make of the fact that Mamai, like his nemesis, is also an animated portrait? What exactly is Mamai’s relationship to the author-narrator, who borrows Mamai from Ukrainian folk painting? These are but three of the many puzzles concealed in only one book. What riches await those who dare to reread the entire Ukrainian tradition freed from kotliarevshchyna’s bonds?