If ever there was a hell on earth, then one could easily argue that parts of Eastern Europe during certain stretches of the 20th century were exactly that. I’m referring to hell as separation (indeed, the etymological root of “diabolic”) – deep, psychic, existential separation from all that is good. Yuriy Tarnawsky’s autobiographical novel, Warm Arctic Nights (JEF Books, 2019), is a masterful depiction of a boy’s steady descent into that hell.
The novel is recounted in the form of a questionnaire, as if the narrator is reluctant to tell his story and needs to be prodded into revealing scattered details that seem to well up spontaneously from his memory. We open with an idyllic childhood. A home in every sense. A nurturing family. A feeling of security that comes from familiar objects, landscapes, and mundane rituals that a child naturally imbues with meaning. And yet, right from the outset, there’s an inescapable sense of foreboding. The very first question is: “What was the room like?” The narrator describes it as “long and narrow, with a tall ceiling, filled with the rose and honey light of a kerosene lamp, shadows along its walls looking like rows of tall men dressed in long black robes, stern-looking, but kindly disposed toward me. They would nod approvingly as I was bathed, before being put to bed, in a sit-up zinc tub in warm water, turned light brown from the oak bark steeped in it which made my skin squeak.” The description is already a poem, and those shadows will hover in starker form throughout the story.
As we spread out from the boy’s immediate surroundings, we learn that he and his family live on a manor estate, which his father manages for an aristocratic family. From the noble titles used, hrabia and hrabina (the equivalent of count and countess), we can assume the aristocrats are Polish. From the boy’s perspective, everything seems warm and cozy – despite the shadows looming. But the boy gradually becomes aware of his surroundings and of himself. He has a sister, who plays the piano, his father had been a soldier and still carries himself like one. His mother is caring, with her big eyes watching him beyond her body. The boy is an avid reader and discovers other worlds through books. And he plays – often innocent games that involve make-believe guns.
One of the major turning points of the boy’s childhood comes when he decides to sleep under the stars. “For a while I slept at night outside, trying to toughen myself up. My father had told me how he used to do it when he was little, to steel himself for whatever life might bring him, so I wanted to do it too.” This separation from the comfort of home – “I would wake up in the middle of the night and in the beginning would feel lonely and homesick for my bed and the shelter of my parents’ bedroom and would be overcome then with an urge to gather up my things and run with tears in my eyes for the love and comfort I would find there, but each time was able to stop myself and remained” – led eventually to the boy getting caught in a storm and falling gravely ill with pneumonia for over a month.
The near-death experience is a watershed in the boy’s psyche. Afterward, the distinctions in the boy’s life become clearer. His father is often with the lady of the estate, though the boy is too young to recognize any cause for suspicion. He senses rifts between his mother and father. Differences in social status between the Polish aristocrats and whatever his family is become more apparent. He discovers sexual differences when he plays innocent peeing games with the neighbor girl.
And then comes the war. The Germans suddenly appear. And they are different from the Poles. Everyone is waiting for some sort of shooting. But it doesn’t come – at least not right away.
When the Germans chase the Russians out, the family moves from the manor estate to the mother’s native town, farther east. The geopolitical complexities on the ground are vague when seen from the boy’s perspective. But as the war draws closer there is a growing awareness of “others.” The Germans conduct searches, round-ups. The boy, who is still less than ten years old, witnesses the mass execution of Jews at the edge of a large pit. “I was shocked by what I was seeing, not so much by the notion of killing as by the mundane way in which it was done, and also by the sight of the naked bodies, all deathly pale and deformed, as if seen through tears, with the black unruly clumps of body hair on them, especially those of women, which I had never seen before, but as if hypnotized was unable to tear my eyes away from what I was witnessing.”
He witnesses other executions. This time of Ukrainian partisans, or at least that’s what he thinks initially. Later he would learn that they were civilians whom the Germans had picked at random in reprisal for partisans killing a German soldier.
The boy is now buffeted by the us-against-them, life-or-death mindset that the war has imposed. The natural awareness of identity and culture takes form in an atmosphere of mass murder the likes of which has never been experienced by anyone; yet there is no way for the boy to have a comparative historical sense of the unprecedented technological aspect of this particular bloodletting. It’s all normal life for him, and all he knows is that he must take part in some way. In any way. To be a man. To face up to life as it presents itself.
When one day his neighbor’s cat has a litter of kittens, and some are left unwanted, they look for volunteers to drown the kittens. Nobody wants to do it, so the boy volunteers. “This was my chance! You had to be tough to be a man, and this was a way to prove to myself and others that I was.” In one of the most chilling scenes in the book, the boy describes what amounts to an analogy of so many of the war’s horrors:
As I looked at them, all of a sudden, I was seized with an incredible hatred – for them being so small and defenseless and for making such pitiful sounds, and so I seized one of them by the tail, swung it around in the air a few times, and hurled it into the water […]
I did the same with the next two, one of which popped up its head above the water for a few seconds before going down, and the other two I just grabbed by their bodies and threw as far as I could, giving each of them a real hard squeeze, as if wanting to cause them pain and perhaps even damage. Their bodies were hot, especially underneath, along their bellies, and the warmth stayed on my fingers like soft feces. The feeling was disgusting and I had an urge to wash my hand.
I wasn’t told what to do with the box and originally thought of taking it back home, but now wanted to be rid of it as soon as possible, and so I threw it in the river and ran off the bridge, hoping to find something to occupy myself with, so as to forget what I’d done.
By this point, the boy has definitively passed through the antechamber of hell. The womblike idyll of his childhood has been reduced to a recurring nightmare “of my tongue being a vast plain covered with big sharp stone boulders whose terrible sharpness and hardness I tasted, which I remember to this day, along which I had to travel, running into the boulders all the time and hurting myself on their sharp edges.”
Shortly thereafter, his mother dies of a prolonged illness. The descriptions of a boy facing the physical decrepitude of his own mother are alternately moving and harrowing.
His father is away, fighting at the front, his unit encircled by the Russians. But he manages to get back home not long after the funeral. The Russians are advancing, executing the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Ethnic identity is now a matter of life or death. The father, driven by nationalist duty, decides to send his two children westward while he helps form and lead a unit of Ukrainian partisans who can continue to fight a guerilla war against the Russians.
The boy and his sister are by now ripped to shreds by the war’s all-against-all mayhem. They travel westward in a train with some remaining family members, separated from their parents, their language, their home and land. The train ride is a prolonged rupture, a fitful ride with long delays through a landscape littered with refugees and death. The boy learns that his father’s unit has been decimated and fears he is dead. He encounters a prophetic man who offers him spiritual solace in the form of a manuscript that needs to be transported and published. Eventually, the boy throws it out the window. At one point he wills the absurd death of his uncle and considers himself a murderer. Finally, even his sister Nora rejects the very language that had bound them from childhood – thus rejecting him. The story concludes with the boy daydreaming amid the reeds near a lake by the train station, then missing the train. In a frenzied fit of self-questioning, the boy realizes he is alone, stranded in a no-man’s land in the midst of a war, separated from everything.
Born in 1934, Tarnawsky’s largely autobiographical account sets the stage for the rifts and existential fragmentation apparent throughout so much of his body of work. The choice of language is only the most obvious: he has alternated from native Ukrainian to English (a language he learned when he came to the United States in 1952 after high school), back and forth as suits his given state. His poetry and fiction are characterized by formal experimentation, like shards of experience reshuffled in search of some linguistic modality that might convey the relentless psychic rupture of an uprooted life. Modus Tollens, one of his most recent collections of poetry is subtitled “Improvised Poetic Devices” in a tongue-in-cheek nod to their shrapnel aesthetic.
Yet Warm Arctic Nights transcends its experimental structure to immerse the reader in the formational story at the root of the Tarnawsky’s lifelong groping for forms. And once you commit to this literary slide into hell, it’s hard to let go. There’s something insidiously addictive about this drama of separation. You have to keep going until there’s nothing left. Absolutely nothing.
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Stash Luczkiw is a US-born writer of poetry, fiction, and journalism. He has translated various books from Italian and other languages into English.