Raven by Vasyl Shkliar
3 March, 2014
Freedom for Ukraine, or Death.
Vasyl Shkliar’s historical novel, Raven, can be described as a revolutionary adventure set after the four year war resulting in Ukraine’s annexation by Russia in 1921. It’s a romantic vision of the Ukrainian resistance centring around Kholodnyi Yar, in the central region of Ukraine. Shkliar’s freedom fighters, including Raven, who leads a faction of the outlaws, living within rigid rules of honour and conduct as opposed to the treacherous Russian communists, especially the Chekists (the Bolshevik secret police) who would do anything to capture these men, are patriotic heroes refusing to bow to communist rule and spend their days in guerrilla warfare and sabotage, risking their lives and forsaking their families for a free homeland. Shkliar’s style and the wonderful translation by S.J. Speight and Stephen Komarnyckyj make this an entertaining and thrilling read studded with pockets of philosophical musings. Shkliar mixes fact and fiction and digs deep into Cossack folklore which gives this masculine tale a romantic edge, probably one of the reasons why it is so popular in the Ukraine considering the current political climate. I’m sure the reality would have been a lot more gruesome and violent than depicted in this novel, but Shkliar holds back just enough to make Raven a novel of hope.
The novel begins with the supposed death and burial of Otoman Veremii, a Ukrainian rebel and military leader of such mythic proportion that the Russians refuse to believe that he has died and go hunting for his body. Raven himself is a man of myth, fitting into the heroic mold of the Ukrainian Cossack warrior with a full black beard and long hair, reputedly born strapped with a sword; invincible, clever, uncapturable. He is never without his horse, Mudei, a white stallion, proud and fearless. His fight with the communists is one not just of the body but of the mind, spying, counter-spying and using information to confuse and mislead them. Together with the other Otamans, Raven raids grain stores to feed his people and gathers intelligence to try and stop the Russians from gaining even more control of his beloved country. There are many adventures and we meet many of Raven’s contemporaries, Cossack bandits with honour and fury that burn bright. And when Raven meets Tina, a beautiful actress, fighting her own battle against the Russians, he falls in love and tries to forge a path that includes her without sacrificing his principles.
It’s an interesting novel in that it is a mixture of adventure, history and also comedy. The darkness of the struggle is alleviated with occasional bursts of comic moments that take you by surprise. In some ways, it follows the traditions of the Russian masters (how ironic considering the main struggle in the novel is in direct opposition to the Russians) and although I am unfamiliar with Ukrainian literature, I’m assuming it shares a similar literary heritage. Even though Raven is a novel about war, revolution and resistance, it is softened somewhat by philosophy and romance.
The only thing that held me back is the confusion with names and titles (such as Otaman which I kept getting confused with the Turkish Ottoman) but this is due to my unfamiliarity with Ukrainian history and culture. There is a helpful glossary at the end of the book and it did make me want to explore Ukrainian history and literature in more detail which is a good thing. Nevertheless this was an enjoyable read and once again made me feel the strength of the Cossack mythos.
Do also check out Stu’s review of Raven.
I would like to thank Aventura eBooks for kindly sending me a copy of the book to review.