What Really Happens in Kabylians'ka's Land, and Why It Matters

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Since the publication of OPha Kobylians'ka's novel Zemlia (Land, 1902), the consensus of Ukrainian critics and scholars, both non-Soviet and Soviet, has held that the novel's central event, and the element of the plot offering the main challenge to interpretation, is the murder of a young peasant by his brother. Attentive reading, however, reveals that the murder is constructed in the novel as a deed whose perpetrator remains unknown. Readings of the novel as an illustration of social or psychological causation in human affairs corresponded to the predispositions of populist critics of various periods. Readings more respectful of the text, and more in keeping with Kobylians'ka's oeuvre as a whole, need to acknowledge that the worldview consistent with the novel is one that despairs of demonstrable causes. Narrative voice and implied readership in Land are managed so as to exclude the construct of an omniscient narrator authorizing a final, knowable version of past events. Instead, the novel may be seen as reflecting upon the irrationality of diverse models for explaining human behaviour. Common-sense social and psychological notions of causality are found inadequate to explain the murder in Land, as are racial determinism, accident, divine intervention, and the Nietzsche-inspired model of humankind as divided into strong and weak, free and enslaved.

To put it in a nutshell: there is no certainty that the murder of Mykhailo in Kobylians'ka's novel Zemlia (Land) is a case of fratricide, even though the century-old critical consensus to the contrary is unanimous.

The populist critic Serhii Iefimov wrote confidently in 1902, in his notorious attack upon what he deemed to be Kobylians'ka's adherence to modernism, of the "fact of fratricide" in Land.1 On this, if little else, his modernist opponents Hnat Khotkevych and Mykola Ievshan agreed with him, as did the doyen of Ukrainian tum-of-the-century letters Ivan Franko.2 So did the early Soviet critic Pavlo Fylypovych and the post-war Soviet critics Babyshkin, Komyshanchenko, Tomashuk, Leshchenko and, most authoritatively, Fedir Pohrebennyk.3 So did the authors of pedagogical advice for teachers of literature in Ukraine both before independence (Korzhupova, Huzar) and since (Koval'chuk, Horyk).4 So does the post-Soviet scholar Tamara Hundorova.5

Ol'ha Kobylians'ka (1863-1942) finished the novel Land in 1901. It was published in 1902.6 Most of Kobylians'ka's earlier novels and stories had central characters who were members of the intelligentsia. In Land, by contrast, the main figures were peasants. The plot of the novel, whose pivotal event is the object of this inquiry, might be summarised as follows. The prosperous peasants Ivonika and Mariia have two sons: the hard-working and obedient Mykhailo, and the lazy and headstrong Sava. Both have lovers: Mykhailo secretly courts Anna, a penniless serving girl, while Sava has an affair with Rakhira, who is widely regarded as a thief and condemned for her licentiousness. Relations between the two brothers, and between Sava and his parents, are strained. Mykhailo is conscripted. On one of his leaves from the army he plans to tell his parents of his plan to many Anna, who is pregnant with his child. Before he can make this disclosure Mykhailo is shot dead. The killing occurs at night in a forest near the village. Public suspicion falls upon Sava. There is an inquiry. Sava is arrested and faces court, but is acquitted for lack of evidence. On returning to the village he rejoins Rakhira and eventually marries her. Ivonika and Mariia remain convinced of Sava's guilt. The distraught Anna gives birth to twins, who die. Much later she marries Petro, a man much older than herself Their son has prospects of an education and of leaving the land.

In her autobiographies and letters Kobylians'ka stressed repeatedly that the characters of the novel, and its climax-the unexplained death of a young peasant, Mykhailo, widely thought in his village to be the doing of his younger brother Sava-were modelled on real people and a real event. …