This acclaimed 2003 novel, recently translated into English for the first time, illuminates the country’s history with a tale bordering on magical realism
A woman, mute and considered a holy, “sweet” fool by her fellow villagers, suffers such excruciating head pain that she’ll walk up to her neck into freezing water or dig herself a pit in the soil. She’s the title character – and pivotal agony – of the book that Andrey Kurkov (arguably Ukraine’s leading writer – and now war diarist) has described as “the best contemporary Ukrainian novel written since Ukrainian independence in 1991”. First published in 2003 and garlanded with awards throughout eastern Europe, this is its first English translation.
Unlike Kurkov, with his satirical, semi-surreal and rather more urban settings, Matios takes us deep into the very rural Carpathians, to a Hutsul village split in two by the river that marks the border with Romania. It’s tempting to read it as magic realism but you could argue that it’s a wholly realistic portrait of the Hutsuls’ own acceptance of everyday magic and the ever-intrusive hand of God. The events aren’t magic – the magic is in the soil, on the hillsides on which they pasture their cows and goats, in the trees from which they pick their plums and cherries.