During the Soviet Occupation of Ukraine in a Hutsul village, a young orphaned traumatized woman named Darusya is trying to overcome her horrible recollections. She only knows the deep feeling of guilt about an unknown tragedy committed when she was an innocent child.
Last month, I said that I was going to read the Polish Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
But then… some stuff happened. So I decided to pivot and instead go for some Ukranian literature: Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages by Maria Matios, translated by Michael M Naydan & Olha Tytarenko.
Sweet Darusya offers a very heavy look at how regular Ukrainians suffered under the Soviet Occupation (I know. It’s difficult to imagine in this day and age). While the discussions of violence and brutality are unflinching, that’s not all that the book is about.
There’s a major theme of disability and perception; the Greek-chorusesque conversations between gossiping neighbours act as a constant reminder that, in this small village, how disabled people are perceived will have a direct effect on how they are treated – whether they’ll be allowed to simply exist, or whether they’re open to harassment. Darusya is largely left autonomous by the villagers, for example, but her lover Ivan is harassed and thrown in jail on trumped up charges. His so-called ‘disability’ seems to simply be that he doesn’t talk much, and when he does he’s very honest. Darusya, meanwhile, has an interesting situation. The village believes that she is mute. She allows the village to think that: “They think she’s mute. But she’s not. Darusya just doesn’t want to speak. Words can cause harm. She doesn’t know from where she remembers that, but it’s the truth.” While she’s not actually mute, she does have debilitating migraines that stem from the massive trauma she suffered when she was a child.
By the way, spoiler/trigger warning: death, body mutilation, sexual assault, torture, descriptions of chronic pain and sexual situations. Just in case you’re thinking about taking this on… I wasn’t joking when I said it was heavy. Maybe not the best book to pick up in light of recent activities on the part of Putin and his lot. I admit that it took me a little extra force to get through the story. The fact that it’s structured in reverse chronological order – so we meet Darusya, then we see her growing up, then we see the trauma that caused her disability, etc – pretty much guaranteed that the book wouldn’t end well, and I knew that going in. So yeah. Proceed with caution.
Next month is Northern/Central Asia. Assuming that nothing terrible happens, I’ll be reading The Vanishing Generation: Faith and Uprising in Modern Uzbekistan by Bagila Bukharbayeva.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂