Dystopia revisited: Valerii Shevchuk's The Eye of the Abyss

Svitlana Kobets, University of Notre Dame

Valerii Shevchuk is the most significant Ukrainian prose writer of the “sixtiers” generation. His recent work, The Eye of the Abyss, (1996) is a philosophical and dystopian novel, which through the lens of mythological events from Ukrainian pseudo-historical past ponders dilemmas urgent for the contemporary Ukraine. The novel’s focal themes include utopian quest for happiness and totalitarianism, value of true knowledge and its ascetic negation, search for self-awareness and conformism. The quest of four main characters who in pursuit of faith and cultivation of high selfhood, set on the pilgrimage to a famous saint, Mykyta of Pereiaslavl, provides the framework for the novel’s major discussions. Although the novel’s ostensible thematic concerns are centered around ecclesiastical and theological issues (including sanctity, asceticism, orthodoxy, heresy) they also reveal relevance to the problems urgent for the post-Soviet Ukraine. If a religious—Christian—utopia is at the center of the novel’s discussion, its realized antipode, the Soviet utopia, is implied in the subtext. The narrator, a self-appointed hagiographer of the life and deeds of Mykyta, the pillar saint of Pereiaslavl, seeks the truth about this acclaimed miracle-worker as well as cure for his own spiritual despondency and creative void. Eventually, the hagiographer’s task supersedes itself and turns into its opposite. He ends up unmasking the fraudulent saint and writing an anti-hagiography. This anti-hagiography acquires the significance of a dystopia. Indeed, the narrator’s first-hand knowledge of the false saint’s transgressions and crimes translates into the implied references to the Soviet utopia: its mythology, falsehood, transgressions and eventual collapse. The narrative exposure of the fraudulent saint provides a venue for contemplating Ukraine’s recent past as a part of the Soviet utopia. It also facilitates uncovering of the implied parallels between the phenomenologies of Christian asceticism and ascetic aspects of the Soviet ideology, between the Christian utopia and its Soviet counterpart. This paper offers a reading of the novel’s dystopian subtext, which comes to the fore through a discussion of the novel’s ostensible Christian themes.