The Man Who Wouldn’t Bow is the first short story book written by Askold Melnyczuk, an award-winning Ukrainian-American novelist.
In the pages of this book, we meet a Syrian war reporter who survived a gun attack (“Termites”), a supposedly ordinary American family whose daughter committed a monstrous crime (“Walk With Us”), and the melancholy descendant of an émigré political activist from Ukraine who searches for his place in New York and tries to find the sources of self in the family past (“The Man Who Wouldn’t Bow”). We also encounter a historical fantasy about Gogol/Hohol (“Gogol’s Noose”), a chronicle of college sex life, shot through with the grim realities of divorce and the death of the hero’s mother (“Embodiment”), and the attempted of a character to understand the life of his parents in their country of origin (“‘Little Fascist Panties'”).
What unites all these stories is a search for roots in the ancestral past, an attempt to overcome a deep existential crisis. Such an existential quest for meaning often blurs the plot, relocating the dramatic action to the inner space of the character, whose troubled mind seeks a rudder. Very often, the protagonists of Melnyczuk embark on their quests for meaning after the death of their parents.
One of the main themes of Melnyczuk’s stories is the haunting legacy of wartime suffering inherited from these deceased relatives. This is precisely what drives a young American journalist, Oliver Street, to travel to the Middle East to report on the war in “Termites”. Having voluntarily experienced war first hand, he now better understands the Second World War experience of his mother Yulia, “whose stories about his the war suddenly felt less abstract.
However, this better understanding of his mother does not provide him with a clue about himself, about his own identity. The extreme experience of war gives him solace in the Umayyad Mosque, when “Oliver felt he stood at the center of the world”, but religion is a fragile foundation for Oliver’s ultimate peace. Integrating his experience of the war and his new understanding of his mother into his identity proves a nearly impossible task upon his return to the United States. At the end of the story, when Oliver feels alienated from his previous life: “Something was wrong. Something was missing. He could feel it. There was a hole in the heart of the city.
In Melnyczuk’s other stories, the war is often linked to the characters of Ukrainian survivors of World War II and post-war migrants to the United States, whose legacy is an object for the reflections of their children in the States. -United.
In the short story “Embodiment”, a divorced man in crisis deals with the death of his mother, whom he rarely visits during her lifetime. When she is gone, he comes to her house to sort out her belongings, “pieces of the past”. Desperate to capture the past, he speaks to her as if she were alive. He tells a story he has heard countless times from his mouth. As a schoolboy, his mother’s father is waiting for the principal when “Tolstoy enters the room.” He is not sure if the main character of this story was Tolstoy or Trotsky, but he compensates for the unreliability of his memory by arriving at an epiphany: “By telling me this story, my mother had the feeling of being part of the story. Images of people no one else remembers leave her body and enter mine.
For the protagonist of Melnyczuk, dealing with memories of the past is linked to the act of writing, which is both painful and therapeutic: “The collective weight of memories threatened to bury me, so I started this diary. Unknown faces in photos, WWII medals, and ancestors you haven’t met can come alive through imagination and storytelling. This is what incarnation really means, and the images and medals become sources of self for Melnyczuk’s narrator.
“’Little Fascist Pantries’” is yet another story that explores how a parent’s wartime memories form a living part of their children’s identity. “The war, which had forced their family to flee their hometown, had been over for half a century, but it didn’t seem to be completely over yet,” Russ observes. Her mother’s death reunites a whole new generation, but after their “shadow reunion”, they are not interested in maintaining family ties.
Likewise, war becomes a vital point on Russ’ mind map. He meets his cousin Larissa, who lives with his father. Overcome by the images of monsters in his head, he travels to Larissa, embarking on an intimate journey that is later invaded by Larissa’s father. Russ is left clueless, dwelling on his imaginary family shadows and lonely because no one can share his worry. Like Orpheus in the Underworld, he takes a last look: “Before disappearing forever from his world, he turned around once more.”
“The Criminal Element” and “A Brief History of the Little Colon People” are fragmentary meditations on character roots, American presidents, fantasies, religion, rich and poor, Gogol/Hohol, Susan Sontag and the photography, “the brutal Third World regimes”, etc. These philosophical pieces shed light on the complex worlds of the protagonists of previous stories, like Oliver and Russ. But a story from the parents’ generation offers a more reliable clue to Melnyczuk’s characters. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Bow” is essential to understanding the entire book.
After a failed attempt to save the Russian Tsar and his family from execution, Mykola (Ukrainian given name of Nikolai Gogol) is unable to come to terms with life with the historical victors, the Bolsheviks/Communists, and leaves his homeland. Living in a new country, the United States, does not guarantee relief from the burden of the past. He manages to survive the Communists, but one of Mykola’s brothers perishes in the Gulag and another during the Holodomor.
Mykola, witness and survivor of the Old World, carries within him his unfinished story, always in the background. In the context of the life in which he settled in America, his politically active and revolutionary past becomes a vain and unavowable vestige: “Mykola never spoke of this period of his life; it was as if he had dreamed it, as if it were a movie watched through the smoke of a burning theater where no one had bothered to shout ‘fire!’
“Activist at heart”, Mykola did not participate in American social life and his family thus became his center of interest, in particular his son Serge: “Serge considered his father in the same way as the old man had considered the tsar. Some tyrants ruled over empires; others had only their families to command. Both shared a faith in the rule of the fist.
Raised by an authoritarian father, Serge’s existential angst becomes his true legacy. Alienated from his parents and his wife, Yulia, he wanders the streets of the city immersing himself in philosophical reflections: “was there something constant, something that could not be taken away from him? He escapes his father’s control, but paradoxically loses a part of himself after the death of his parents: “Without their support, he felt naked and alone, facing an anonymous force, invisible and everywhere.
Finally, he becomes a guardian of the cultural and historical “lost greatness” of his ancestral heritage, despite the loss of his wife and two sons due to his work for a communist newspaper in the United States. “He felt the nobility of his soul: we are promised a great destiny, even if its ultimate fulfillment only blossoms in paradise at the end of time”, concludes Melnyczuk.
In “Gogol’s Noose”, Melnyczuk highlights Hohol’s dual identity, caught between the Russian Empire and its ethnic Ukrainian community. Melnyczuk emphasizes the great author’s vulnerability and susceptibility to empire, as it was the only way he could secure a wider readership and write his name into history. But the choice made by Hohol leaves him psychologically damaged. He envies Pushkin: “He would have liked to have Pushkin’s nerve. Pushkin waged war on the tsars while Nikolai, intimidated by the consequences of dissent, wrote dithyrambs in their honor.
Reading The Man Who Wouldn’t Bow, I was stunned when one of Melnyczuk’s characters deliberately went into a war to better understand his mother’s experience in World War II. It is probably one of the finest tributes people can pay to the suffering of their ancestors.
While I suspect this plot element is autobiographical, it also reflects my current situation. As I find myself living through the war and writing between the sirens of air raids, I have a much better understanding of the lives and works of post-war Ukrainian writers, including Yurii Kosach, who is the main character in my book.
Although written and published before the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war, Melnyczuk’s short stories are fortuitously topical and true to life.
I’ve read about Mykola’s father, who worked in the coal mines outside Luhansk and died young, and I think of the current and future fierce battles against the Russian army in eastern Russia. ‘Ukraine. I read about WWII Lviv and Mykola from Opera Melnyczuk clearly remembers and thinks of my friends who volunteer in Lviv for Ukrainian IDPs, warmly welcoming survivors of evacuation trains from the east from Ukraine. I read about Serge’s mother, who saw her son memorize Shevchenko’s poetry, and I think of Shevchenko’s monument in Borodianka, riddled with Russian bullets. I also can’t help but think of the monument to Shevchenko in Kharkiv, currently protected by sandbags, patiently waiting to be freed.
While reading about Hohol in this collection, I watched reports of Russian missiles attacking his city, Myrhorod. I also saw signs of historical justice and hope: monuments to the imperial poet Pushkin are being dismantled in Ukrainian cities.
Askold Melnyczuk’s stories are about change. They honor the plasticity and flexibility of memory: war, cultural symbols, game figures and family histories are always being reconsidered. The wounds of past and present are open, bleeding, but does that mean the Olivers, Mykolas or Hohols of Melnyczuk must surrender? That they continue to search for their roots, to pursue their own sense of Ukrainianness, gives me hope.
Recognition: I would like to express my immense gratitude to Lesia Waschuk for her professional and thoughtful editing of my review.