“A Language So Musical and Magical”: On Volodymyr Rafeyenko’s “Mondegreen: Songs about Death and Love”

ONCE, WHEN HER MOTHER was reading her poems from an 18th-century book of popular ballads, American writer Sylvia Wright had a curious auditory experience. The words “laid him on the green” were transformed in her ears into “Lady Mondegreen,” an error to which she admitted publicly in a 1954 article in Harper’s Bazaar that, perhaps as inadvertently as the initial mishearing, ensconced the word in the English language. But it’s Volodymyr Rafeyenko with his recently translated novel, Mondegreen: Songs about Death and Lovewho has truly explored the depths of the phenomenon — and to do so, he had to learn Ukrainian.

A mondegreen is more than a misheard song lyric. It’s also an act of transformation in which the thing that is misheard is ascribed a new meaning, which, although incorrect, is perceived by the listener to be the proper one. It’s a particular brand of misinterpretation that tends primarily to afflict two kinds of people: music listeners and foreign-language learners. True to its title, Rafeyenko’s Mondegreen is a tapestry of Soviet rock lyrics, traditional folk ballads, the poems of Taras Shevchenko, and contemporary literary memes, all filtered through the ears of a Ukrainian language learner. The novel, recently released in English in a translation by Mark Andryczyk, is Rafeyenko’s first Ukrainian-language effort, one that rejoices in the “melodious and delightful” lexicon that is new to both author and protagonist.

The book follows Haba Habinsky, a Russian-speaking professor from City Z (Donetsk) who, displaced by Russia’s proxy war, is forced to start a new life in the capital. Now a refugee in Kyiv, Habinsky wanders the city like a foreigner, simultaneously overwhelmed and exhilarated by “[a] language so musical and magical. One that leads you to all kinds of nonsense and multicolored idiocy.”

His experience mirrors that of his author, who left his native Russian behind, along with his hometown of Donetsk, when he fled the Russian occupation in 2014. While aboard the train to Kyiv, Rafeyenko, already a prize-winning author of six Russian- language novels, promised himself he would write a novel in Ukrainian. Russia’s perverse justification for its attacks on Donbas — to “protect” Russian-speaking Ukrainians — made Rafeyenko feel at once a victim of and a reason for the war. Accordingly, he pledged to write only in Ukrainian until he was able to produce a novel in the language his grandmother used to tell him folktales.

Habinsky, now the caretaker of the produce aisle at a luxurious Kyiv grocery store, undertakes a similar experiment: to speak to himself only in Ukrainian. He befriends his boss Petro Petrovych and a tipsy ex-seminarian named Vasyl, with whom he blesses the dried fruits in a drunken ritual that signifies his inclusion among Ukrainian speakers. This is particularly welcome as Habinsky attempts to navigate a Poroshenko-era Kyiv that frequently regards refugees from the east with suspicion. His adoption of Ukrainian also aids his budding romance with the boss’s dangerously attractive niece, Ole-Luk-Oie, whom he has been assigned to tutor.

But Habinsky’s dive into the Ukrainian language also has violent consequences, unlocking not only an entirely new set of linguistic tools but also a Pandora’s box of suppressed memories. Just as Sylvia Wright was inspired by the Scottish ballads read to her as a child, so Rafeyenko is spurred by the fairy tales and folk songs of his youth. But these fairy tales are far more Hans Christian Andersen than they are Disney, intended to frighten rather than comfort. Habinsky is haunted by these folk characters, the most sinister of which is the inescapable Mare’s Head, a disembodied equine skull that torments him with grammar, third-wheels his sessions with Ole-Luk-Oie, and brutally punishes those who do not respect their past.

The book shuttles between illusion and reality, as well as among three different time periods: Habinsky’s new life in Kyiv, his old one in City Z, and the earliest days of the Soviet Union. As he traverses the Kyiv metro system and the sonorous streets of the Obolon neighborhood, Habinsky is constantly disoriented and confronted by jarring memories. While he can’t be said to be lucky in love, he is surprisingly talented at sex, as the reader learns through several colorful memories of his romantic history from puberty to the present day. But nostalgia quickly gives way to terror as Habinsky is hounded by conjurings of past events, by a former lover in Donetsk who, as separatists take hold of the city, transforms into a dragonfly, by a worm that eats the ears of disobedient children and can be tamed only with a performance of “Yesterday” by the Beatles, and by his great-grandparents, who were shot in front of their five small children by the Bolsheviks in 1922.

For Habinsky, “existence is bleeding to death, looking into you with the sad eyes of dead relatives and folk tale characters.” Even visiting a psychiatrist cannot prevent his descent into madness and a desperate act of vengeance. But although language is the trigger for Habinsky’s confrontation with trauma and violence, it’s also highly restorative. Learning Ukrainian allows him to break the repressive silence surrounding what he refers to as the “Canon of Not-knowing.” Not knowing the situation of his pro-Russian parents left behind in City Z, not knowing the truth of the abusive marriage between an ex-lover-turned-dragonfly and her coalmining husband, not knowing the crimes the Soviets perpetrated against successive generations of relatives (which were never spoken about). While these confrontations are extremely painful, they are also therapeutic. The book is a testament to the healing power of creativity. Perhaps for this reason, Ukrainian poet and literary scholar Marianna Kianovska has gone so far as to call the book an act of self-care.

Despite the darkness of its subject matter, Mondegreen is playful and witty. The text, though dense, is saturated with tongue-in-cheek references to World War II–era army songs, with clever jabs at Gogol and Pushkin, and with a variety of amusing plays on words. The humor shines through in the translation, even if the exact word games can’t be rendered. By his own admission, Mark Andryczyk was unable to capture, for example, Habinsky’s delight in the vocative case, a grammatical innovation that exists in Ukrainian but not Russian, and a variety of other linguistic antics. Given the complexity of the text, it’s astonishing how much Andryczyk was able to impart in his English version. Moreover, the translation leaves the reader not with a sense of loss but with a feeling that over the horizon there is a tantalizingly rich and vibrant world that one can only access if they too learn Ukrainian.

Since the novel was first published in violence 2019, it has only grown in salience as more and more Ukrainians find themselves displaced or retraumatized by the latest iteration of Russian against their country. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, thousands of Ukrainians have been spurred by patriotism or necessity to learn Ukrainian, Polish, German, or English. Mondegreen Demonstrations that the acquisition of a new language can be truly perilous for a refugee, rupturing one’s conception of self and raising harrowing questions about identity. But it is also a handbook for how to remain connected to one’s Ukrainian roots despite displacement and the deliberate repression of Ukrainian nationhood.

The novel demonstrations that the recent trend of Russian-speaking Ukrainians adopting Ukrainian as their language of choice is more than a mere fad. Russia’s war in Ukraine has not only consolidated Ukrainian identity but profoundly stimulated Ukrainian creativity. Mondegreen has surely earned Rafeyenko a place alongside the other greats of contemporary Ukrainian literature, like Serhiy Zhadan, Andrey Kurkov, Iya Kiva, and Stanislav Aseyev, all of whom have made the war and occupation of Donbas and Crimea the centerpiece of their work. After all, Habinsky asks himself in the early pages of the book, “[F]rom where would authentic Ukrainian culture come to Kyiv if not from Donetsk?”

The war in Donbas served as inspiration for several of Rafeyenko’s past works, including the prize-winning Russian-language novel Length of Days (2017) and his chilling short story “Seven Dillweeds,” translated into English by Marci Shore. Both works draw heavily on the themes of folklore, language, war, memory, and Ukrainian identity that are repeated in Mondegreenand they give Rafeyenko’s work the feeling of a tale repeatedly told from memory so that it evolves slightly each time.

Rafeyenko’s novel is proof that the language of Shevchenko is not just flourishing but evolving. To Rafeyenko, this process is life-giving, for both Ukrainian speakers and the language itself. Language […] must be needed. Because then you use it and it forms you. This mechanism works like the Eucharist. You receive its body, wash it down with cold raisin-flavored kvas, and fly through the heavens from morning ’til night.” For those who delight in linguistic tomfoolery, Mondegreen is truly indulgent, a lyrical celebration of words and their power, not just to express but to transform.

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