Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a steady stream of talking heads, heads of state, pundits, and proles began justifiably praising the resilience of the Ukrainian people. This determined defiance is nothing new. In the past quarter century alone, Ukrainians have combatted Russian and Russian-backed forces both on the battlefield, for nine years and counting, and in the political arena during three revolutions. In 2014, the Revolution of Dignity (finally) drove Putin-pal Viktor Yanukovych out of the presidency and into exile in Russia. He had initially seemed poised to take power in 2004, but his fraud-fueled election sparked the Orange Revolution and forced a new vote won by Victor Yushchenko. Prior to the Vic/ktors, Ukraine was led by a couple of Leonids—Kuchma and Kravchuk—whose political fortunes date back to the waning days of Ukraine’s Communist past and its first revolution, the Revolution on Granite in 1990.
At that time, Kravchuk was chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, where Kuchma served as a deputy. On October 2, a group of students began a hunger strike in Kyiv. The number of strikers quickly increased, as did the size of the crowd of supporters, which swelled to many thousands. Fifteen days later, the activists’ demands were met, including the resignation of Vitaly Masol, the head of the Council of Ministers. With Masol gone, Kravchuk became de facto leader of Ukraine, and fourteen months later he was elected the country’s first president. After widespread economic troubles prompted Kravchuk’s resignation in 1994, then-Prime Minister Kuchma was elected to replace him.
Ukrainian author Oksana Lutsyshyna’s novel Ivan and Phoebe targets this tumultuous, seminal period from the late 1980s through the 1990s. Originally published in 2019 and newly available in Nina Murray’s English translation, the novel comprises three sections but feels like two distinct stories that are awkwardly coupled, much like Ivan and Phoebe themselves. The middle section, from which Phoebe is completely absent, explores the period surrounding the 1990 revolution, including Ivan’s recollections of his political awakening prior to the hunger strike and his experiences in its immediate aftermath. This main portion is bookended by two sections that take place later on. The first follows Ivan after 1992, when he has returned to his hometown of Uzhhorod, in western Ukraine, about five miles from the border with Slovakia. There he meets Phoebe, whom he disdains but nevertheless remains with as he tries, throughout the novel’s third section, to find his place in the newly independent country that his activism helped foster.
Ivan and Phoebe is at its best in the middle section, which opens with the arrival of Ivan and his activist friends on the Maidan, the site of the hunger strike, in October 1990. We quickly flash back to how his life was upended by going to university in the western city of Lviv, where “folks did not pay much heed to Soviet rules.” There, he realizes that he has been sold a bill of goods by the Russians—“He knew nothing, he had been told nothing, he was never taught anything, anything at all. He had only been taught there was Moscow.” Lutsyshyna, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, has a solid feel for the boundless wonders of collegiate life, and indeed Ivan meets thinkers like his roommate Mysko, dreamers like activist leader Yarema, and bohemians like his first girlfriend, Rose. Though she is only present in this middle section, Rose is one of the novel’s most lovingly crafted characters, thanks largely to the set piece recounting the three days that she and Ivan spend together in Uzhhorod on a school break before the revolution.
Once the hunger strike begins, Ivan’s group acts as security. The revolution’s first days are richly observed, with fictional characters interacting with real-life figures, including Kravchuk and human rights activist Oksana Yakivna Meshko, but its conclusion feels rushed, as storylines are cauterized instead of allowed to flow. It is significant that Ivan and his friends vehemently oppose the participation of Rose and several women from Lviv because “they were future mothers and could not jeopardize their health.” (The boys may be enlightened politically, but they remain decidedly benighted in other ways.) Rose reads them the riot act and joins anyway, only for readers to later learn in a parenthetical that she ended her strike prematurely.
As the middle section draws to a close, the students are questioned about their involvement in the revolution, and Ivan is psychologically tormented by a man who calls himself “Sashko Petrenko,” the name of a student who died under mysterious circumstances. The pressure drives Ivan away from Rose, his friends, and the life he has built in Lviv. This intriguing setup is weakened, however, by its placement in the physical center of the story, exacerbating the jarring narrative transitions and garbled timeline of the rest of the novel.
When Ivan and Phoebe begins, Ivan is living at home sometime after independence in Uzhhorod, betraying friends we haven’t yet met, and nervously looking over his shoulder for someone—Sashko—whose mind games aren’t explained for another 200 pages. Ivan is an IT guy for a bank and loath to marry his boss’s daughter, Phoebe, whom he meets when she comes in to type up some of her poems. Reading her poetry over her shoulder, he is smitten. “Her poems had released them both from their protective carapaces. They looked at each other in that moment, as they were, real, and smiled—and later would remember it for a very long time, this sudden connection.” But that “sudden connection” is severed immediately. Ten pages later, Ivan rants that “this body should not—must not—write poems. It must not write anything at all. It might not even be meant to speak. It ought to be its naked self and nothing else. Just so.” Just so, indeed. It is one of several abrupt turns for Ivan, followed by his destruction of Phoebe’s computer disk, which is undertaken with the exuberant malice of a mustachioed silent film villain, “crushing it, crushing not just the plastic, but all of Phoebe’s words, all her blackness, all her dreams, and her lace.” The disk is not mentioned again until the end of the novel, more than five years later chronologically.
This phantom thread is just one aspect of Phoebe’s story that gets short shrift. While the novel is written mostly in close third person from Ivan’s perspective, it also explores the lives of several peripheral characters, such as Kreitzar, Ivan’s friend who struggles with alcoholism, and Styopa, Ivan’s brother-in-law who wants to open a restaurant, with a thoroughness that feels unwarranted given those characters’ relationship to the rest of the novel. By contrast, the titular Phoebe’s point of view is confined to two brief, offbeat “monologues.” The first is a litany of terse slurs presumably directed at Phoebe at some point in her past (“You are dumb,” “Freeloader,” “Shut up,” etc.); the second recaps how, after giving birth to her daughter, she is abandoned in the maternity ward and starts talking to the wall. (“Oh, dear wall, I am so cold, would you hold me, would you hug me, dear wall?”) While substantively haunting, the episodes are stylistically tedious, particularly the repeated interjections (e.g., “Quickly, quickly. I am writing very quickly”) insisting that the latter was scribbled in haste.
It is unclear what is gained by Phoebe’s voicelessness and superficiality. The novel emphasizes that, despite the country’s political transformation, social change in Ukraine is not forthcoming. But this message is more effectively conveyed by Rose’s attempt to join the hunger strike or Ivan’s complicated relationship with his mother than by his one-sided interactions with Phoebe. Late in the novel, when it seems she may finally show some character development, the decision is reversed immediately.
The prior narrative matters little throughout the final section. Even the nightmare of Sashko goes unmentioned when Ivan briefly returns to Lviv. Generalities substitute for historical nuance: “The country, it seemed, had fallen into oligarchy. Assisted, as needed, by various special services. At the very top, it was all special services and oligarchs. That was the new social order.” And the passage of time is meaningless, as cultural touchstones—the start of the Kuchma era (1994), the election of Victor Medvedchuk to parliament (1997), the availability of dial-up home internet (late 1990s at the earliest)—indicate that many years have gone by, but Ivan and Phoebe’s daughter remains a baby.
Murray’s work is unsurprisingly at its best when the narrative relays events in Lviv and Kyiv, but her translation of dialogue is evocative throughout, particularly the dialect of the title characters’ mothers. Phoebe’s is fond of rural aphorisms, such as “You’ve got as much use for that as a hare for a stop sign,” while Ivan’s uses a grammatically laissez-faire patois, as in “What’s you laughing at? You’re a grown ‘un,” and “We done saw the story!” Several tonally discordant passages (“Perdition itself had opened its scarlet maw at him”) did pull me out of the story. These register changes may have a different effect in Ukrainian, but I wish Murray had sanded them down so that, for example, a moment when the scales fall from Ivan’s eyes was not rendered as the risible “his blood [cried] out from the bottom of its living well: This is I! This is mine own!”
Overall, I wonder whether a combination of the novel’s central section and a couple passages that feel shoehorned into its first section wouldn’t have made for a more satisfying overall narrative. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in Ivan and Phoebe, particularly Ivan’s involvement in such an exciting instance of Ukraine’s much-heralded resistance. . . . and Phoebe? She deserved better, in life and in this novel. Maybe answers will come in a future installment involving her. Phoebe and Ivan?
Ivan and Phoebe by Oksana Lutsyshyna, translated from the Ukrainian by Nina Murray (Deep Vellum, 2023).
© 2023 by Cory Oldweiler. All rights reserved.