Volodymyr Dibrova (born 1951), USSR, Ukraine, USA.
Dibrova has a complex identity as a university professor (at the Kyïv Mohyla Academy in Ukraine and the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University) and as an author. He has taught English as well as Ukrainian language and literature and translates from English.
Peltse and Pentameron was translated from the Ukrainian by Halyna Hryn.
Questions for reading:
Other books by Dibrova:
Q. Do you too consider Peltse a novel? Why or why not?
Dibrova: I don’t know whether Peltse is a novel or a novella or a long short story. And I’m not sure it’s important for me. It has a story to tell and it does it in a snapshotty, flashy, Tiggerly way as befits a confused individual. Because that is basically who Peltse is, a child who made a wrong turn and never admitted it. Life, one might argue, is a chain of epiphanies. Or lack thereof. A linear narration is not the best way to show it. While a longer story would slow everything down. Besides, I have to admit that I was inspired by Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America).
Q. How much do you intend for your readers to see parallels with Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev? Were you thinking of them as you wrote, or did it just happen naturally, since there are only so many possible models of Soviet political leadership?
Dibrova: Actually Peltse was born out of my fascination with Arvid Jaanovich Pelshe, a minor member of the Communist Party’s Politbureau (late 1960s–1980s) from Latvia. He was always there, standing on the Mausoleum during parades, or at Congresses alongside other comrades but he never spoke a word. He was tall, gaunt, stern (almost Beckett-like) and mysterious. In a standard set of the Politbureau canonical portraits that used to adorn cities and farms of the Soviet Union during public holidays he was always the last. So one could get the impression that he kind of made it but got out of steam and was turned into a piece of sacred furniture.
I don’t see Peltse as a satire, but rather an attempt to humanize a portrait. After all, every picture tells a story, doesn’t it?
Q. In Pentameron, why did you choose an office with four women and one man? (Just chance?)
Dibrova: It is a demographic fact that the majority of Soviet office workers as well as teachers and medical doctors were women. Usually women are the first to bear the brunt of radical social changes and upheavals. They are more sensitive and sensible too. And after all, for 4 years I worked in an office not unlike the one described inPentameron. The room ratio was 5 women to 2 men.
Q. Does the name (acronym) of the institution (NIIAA) have any significance?
It does indeed. Acronymization of life is a sign of the XX century and of the Soviet Communist system in particular. In Ukrainian NIIAA sounds like a primal growl, a cry of pain, a manifestation of despair and negation (NIIAA = not me!). But I didn’t want to make it too obvious.
Q. Does the room number of their office have any significance?
Dibrova: When I was young oh so much younger than toda-hey-hey I didn’t like number 7 (due to some bad private associations). But I got over it.
Q. Since your English is so good, why didn’t you choose to translate these novels yourself?
Dibrova: There are at least two reasons.
First, I had no time for it. Should I translate something that has already been written at the expense of working on something new? Given the fact that for me free time is a non-existent commodity, the answer is “no.” And second, I don’t feel I know English well enough. I studied it, I imitated it but I didn’t really live it. In Ukrainian I am responsible not only for the words I wrote but also for what is between them. And that elusive stuff (life under Communism — a very distinct yet unexpectedly universal human experience) does not lend itself easily to an outsider, however diligent a student that outsider could be.
Q. Do you have children? If so, are any of them like Andrij?
Dibrova: I have a son (Ivan) and two daughters. And yes, scrub Andrij and you will have Ivan.
Q. Is Pervomaj Vereshchak meant to recall Leonid Pervomajskij?
No connection whatsoever. Leonid Pervomajs′kyj (real author Illia Gurevich) was a Jewish Ukrainian writer, and a good translator of European poets. Pervomaj Vereshchak is a roughly hewn product of Soviet propaganda, a hero turned villain turned fake. But before laughing at him imagine for a moment he is your granddad and now let’s see if you can live with that.
Q. How do you balance being a writer and a professor?
Dibrova: I don’t balance. I’m just trying to survive.
Q. If your wife a writer too? If so, how do you (do you?) work together?
Dibrova: No, my wife is not a writer. But recently she wrote a textbook of Advanced Ukrainian for my Summer School students. The type of visa we are on does not allow her to work (thank you INS!). But she is my editor, my biggest supporter, my first and most cherished reader.
How do you stay in touch with culture and events in Ukraine while you’re in the US?
Dibrova: I read Ukrainian newspapers. Rubbing shoulders and boozing with my literary brothers is not an option at the moment.
Q. Have you been influenced at all by comic books?
Dibrova: What is a comic book? (However, one of my favorite artists is Roy Lichtenstein.)
Q. How does your narrative voice compare to your professorial persona?
I have no professional persona, that’s my problem. Some people eat to live. Others live to eat. I have to do that professional persona thing in order both to eat and to live.
Q. Did you ever anticipate that these two works would have readers who didn’t know the Soviet/Ukrainian political and historical background?
Dibrova: In a nutshell, never.
Q. We’d expect someone in the situation described in Pentameron to be day-dreaming about a better life, but they’re often having pessimistic anti-fantasies — why is that so?
Dibrova: It is not so much the question of “a better life” dreams. I suspect the choice these characters are facing is between life (which, of course, also means freedom, since exercising freedom is freedom) and their present stagnation (or pre-existence). Thus their fantasies (or, if you prefer, pessimistic anti-fantasies or bits and pieces of what they’ve been through) is nothing but a warming-up, a preparation for (or backing-off from) that leap of faith that is required of all of them and that they so spectacularly blew. Only Vitya (it turns out at the end) has a chance not to chicken out.
Q. Why or for whom did you write Pentameron?
Dibrova: In 1973 right after graduation I began working in a Scientific Research Institute. And I hated it so much the only way I could put up with it was to write a book about it. I couldn’t quit because at that time I lived with my in-laws and it was only as an employee of that Institute that I could get an apartment of my own. But it took me 19 years to find the right perspective and rhythm. And I never think about my prospective or future audience. You never count your money / when you sittin’ at the table / there’ll be time enough for countin’ / when the deal is done.
Q. Do you have a relationship with anyone like the artist in the novel? (Who walks past the window, looking happy, and then is gone.) Is it intentional that he and Andrij seem to be the only happy and positive characters?
Dibrova: I’m not sure I’m quite happy about the whole idea that there are “positive” and “negative” characters. Or, in plain English, “good” people and “bad” people. Too Manichean, you know. Many “good” people did pretty nasty things to me, while “bad” guys were instrumental in getting me out of harm’s way.
As to my relationship with the population of Pentameron all I can do is to repeat - Madame Bovary, c’est moi. Andrij is definitely happy and positive in his sheltered world of childhood. He has a life in front of him to test his sun’s letters. (“I’m not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one.”)
Q. Did you pick Askold Melnyczuk to write the introduction, and do you like what he wrote?
Dibrova: I did not pick Askold Melnyczuk to write the introduction. [Translator] Halyna Hryn asked him to do it and I’m glad he agreed.
Q. Is the use of quotation marks for thoughts, while reported speech is given (ambiguously, for an American reader) without quotation marks, the same in the translation of Pentameron as in the Ukrainian original? (Our hypothesis was that the quotation marks, by setting the thoughts apart graphically from the surrounding text, remind the reader of how each character has to keep his or her thoughts to him or herself, while anything spoken aloud immediately “dissolves” into the ambiance, not really belonging any more solely to the person who uttered it the the moment other people hear it.)
Dibrova: Yes, I suppose that could be a fairly legitimate explanation. With Pentameron I had two major technical problems.
First, I had to recreate that unbearable feeling of swimming in a pool of tar (nothing ever changes, no way out, everything is pre-determined), because that’s what Soviet communism is all about. To do this I had to stick to the present tense narration. Ane second, I had to differentiate between what one thinks and what one says (without repeating the obvious “he says” and “she thinks”). Any way you do graphically is all right as along as it is understood by the readers. However, one of the results of this double-think is that gradually the line between thinking and saying blurs and everything turns into a sort of delirium. Dreams, hopes, utterances and wild plans became part of one stream (even ponds of tar have currents, you know) that drags them down. Thus by the end of their working day the only thing that matters is to break free.
Works about Dibrova:
Dibrova has not yet been written about much in English—but if you read Ukrainian…
If you do a Google search for Dibrova, his professorial persona comes up first, followed by books for sale. You have to dig a little deeper to get to the literary festivals and events at which he is appearing, etc. Understanding of Peltse is greatly enhanced by consulting the thorough and informative 1998 book by Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian Minstrels: …and the Blind Shall Sing. You might enjoy comparing Peltse and especially Pentameron to the wonderful book What Is Told by Askold Melnychuk, the Ukrainain-American novelist who wrote the introduction to our edition). Another wonderful comparison to Pentameron would be Iuliia Voznesenskaya's Women’s Decameron, set in a Soviet maternity hospital and structured like the Decameron (except that Voznesenskaya finished the whole cycle). Or check out the stories by other people in From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.