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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Borys Antonenko-Davydovych

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To purchase Duel

Title: Duel
Author: Borys Antonenko-Davydovych
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 1986; rev. 2022)
Length: 199 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: Duel - US
Duel - UK
Duel - Canada
directly from: Glagoslav
  • Ukrainian title: Смерть
  • First published serially in 1927
  • Translated by Yuri Tkacz
  • With an Introduction by Dmytro Chub

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating and quite good period- (and place-)piece

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       First published serially in 1927, and then in book form in 1928, Duel opens as:

     Kost Horobenko examined his Party ticket, and this time the familiar and rather ordinary words seemed to him much too expressive and ambiguous:
     Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik).
     A languorous thought occurred to Kost: what nonsense -- to print the word 'Russian' in Ukrainian ...
       This opening scene sums up much of the tension in the novel, as Kost, a dedicated, active Ukrainian nationalist just a few years earlier, has now thrown his lot in with the Bolsheviks and is determined to prove himself true to this cause. It's still hard for him to get used to the term 'Bolshevik' and its still all-too fresh dark connotations -- "the word 'Bolshevik', that very same Bolshevik who, according to recent terminology had 'borne communism from the north of Russia to Ukraine' on the tips of bayonets" -- but he has embraced the cause. Even if he still has to repeat to himself, trying to convince himself: "I am a Bolshevik".
       This duel between the two forces still fighting within him -- to the Communist cause, in the form of Bolshevism, and to his patriotic allegiance to the fatherland that is this entity 'Ukraine' -- is the struggle at the heart of the novel. And it's worth noting that, much as the English title captures this struggle well, the original Ukrainian title is Смерть -- 'Death'.
       Kost feels he has all the more to prove when someone slips him the Party committee's character reference report on him, judging:
     'As a Communist-Bolshevik (someone seemed to have underlined this second word almost deliberately and consciously) -- he is unstable, on account of his previous membership in Ukrainian organizations, but as a cultural worker he can be used on the provincial level.'
       He sets out to prove himself by showing himself to be a Bolshevik hard-liner -- as in, for example, pushing the requisitioning of all privately-owned pianos and personal libraries -- even as the collected books are essentially simply gathered and left to rot:
They were unsystematically dumped on the floor of an empty room in the public hall and here, on the dirty boards, countless titles from various fields of knowledge, science and art found a long resting place. In thick layers they spread the breadth and length of the room, the lower layers becoming covered in decaying dust, while new layers continued to rise above them.
       They remain basically untouched and unread: "Only Kost Horobenko entered this room, sitting among the paper cadavers like an undertaker for hours on end".
       In action, his allegiance to Bolshevism is complete -- "You are no longer the same person, Horobenko. No, no, not the same person. The Rubicon has been crossed. And there is no turning back. There are only extreme measures. There is no middle road" -- but he is more torn than he wants to admit even just to himself. It is hard to untangle his Ukrainian identity from this struggle for the greater good:
Ah, why can't Popynaka and Krycheyev, and the rest of them not understand that in Ukraine the matter of nationality is so closely bound to the social question ... ? Why won't they understand that the Ukrainian national question is a completely real, vital notion, and not a mere fantasy ... ?
       Adding a melancholy touch is the lost fiancée, Nadia. On the one had, he has to be relieved that their love can not be -- "she would have been a 'bourgeois', 'ballast', non-Party scum ..." --, on the other, she is the great love of his life -- an ideal now, because she is dead, out of reach.
       There are some interesting scenes of the tumultuous times, including White Guard women forced to model in the nude for an art class, a curious show of power and restraint -- the women exposed but otherwise unmolested -- and there is the continuing tug of war between the Russian and Ukrainian languages, not least in the schools. The Bolshevik grip is strong but hardly unchallenged, and the local area continues to be threatened by militant gangs, one of the bigger problems the authorities face.
       There's a mournfulness to Antonenko-Davydovych's writing: unlike much literature chronicling the revolutionary period, with its combination of optimistic outlook and acknowledgement of hardships, his Horobenko feels deeply also a sense of what is lost -- while acknowledging it must be left behind. Some of the writing is very good -- though Antonenko-Davydovych has a tendency to overdo it; a nice little image such as:
The sun inundated the veranda, and only a sorrowful piece of shade remained in one corner near the eaves, almost like a memory of someone's hopeless grief.
       then weakened because he can't just leave it at that but rather continues:
Horobenko peered into this shade and found it dear to him. The intoxicating bliss of the sunshine and the lonely sorrow of the shade were related, they complemented one another like true brothers.
       Duel is an interesting work of the early Soviet period, particularly in presenting a non-Russian -- and, indeed, a specifically Ukrainian -- perspective. Horobenko's embrace of the Bolshevik cause is not as simplistic as often found in the fiction of that time, with Antonenko-Davydovych going so far as to have him understand that, for example:
     The Party was no arsenal of saints. But therein was its strength, its unique messianism, that from the most ordinary people, those with inherent good and evil, it was creating a new, quite distinct tribe. A Bolshevik race ...
       At one point Horobenko wonders to himself: "What's all this leading to ?" with Antonenko-Davydovych ably presenting just how very open-ended the question is at that point. It's part of what makes Duel both of literary and historical interest and value.
       Very much a novel of its times -- and a significant one, at that -- , Duel also has some purely literary appeal. Certainly of interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 October 2022

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Duel: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian -writing Soviet author Borys Antonenko-Davydovych (Борис Антоненко-Давидович) lived 1899 to 1984.

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© 2022 the complete review

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