Duel

Written by Borys Antonenko-Davydovych Yuri Tkacz (trans.)
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

Borys Antonenko-Davydovych (1899-1984) was a post-revolutionary writer determined to revive Ukrainian literature and fight against Soviet Russia’s suppression of Ukrainian culture. He was arrested and sentenced to hard labour in Siberia where he remained for 21 years, only returning to Kyiv in 1956. In the 1970s there was renewed repression of Ukrainian culture and his writing stopped being published.

Duel was first published in 1927 but instantly incurred the wrath of the Soviet regime. The book tells of party worker Kost Horobenko during the period of militant Communism and is set in a small provincial town. It’s based largely on the author’s own experience and thus has a ring of authenticity. Horobenko is a former Ukrainian nationalist who has now thrown his lot in with the Soviets. He accepts the Party’s instructions, however brutal, but struggles with his conscience, not least when required to carry out requisitions. Outwardly a true believer, he is constantly duelling with his alter ego, the Ukrainian nationalist he once was. But whatever he does he can never live down the taint of his previous sympathies and is considered “unstable” on that account. He is fully aware of the “mass poverty, misery, destruction” around him, with famine drawing closer, and becomes increasingly conflicted about his actions.

There are two particularly painful scenes in one of which he has to take away someone’s family piano, and in another he uselessly takes away a physics teacher’s microscope—with no justification. Desperate for acceptance, he even stoops to inform on his colleagues. The novel is a psychologically insightful and astute portrait of a man at war with himself, a sharp and sometimes satirical look at Party edicts, and a multi-layered and complex exploration of political accommodations. Some useful footnotes help with understanding the background.