Kotsiubynsky’s “Fata Morgana”: A mirage of the land7 min read

 In Blog, Culture, Eastern Europe, Format, Review, Reviews
Last month marked the anniversary on 25 April of the death of one the most influential Ukrainian writers, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. He brought a new European style of writing to his works by merging socialist realism and impressionism, enriching the literature with deep psychological, neorealist, impressionist, and modernist tendencies. The perfect example of this in his works is Fata Morgana, a term representing mirage or illusion, and a symbolic title befitting this novel’s plot. 

Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s Fata Morgana delves into the tumultuous societal shifts occurring within Ukrainian rural landscapes during the early 1900s and the consequential waves of the 1905-1907 Russian revolution. Embarking on a profound exploration of the human psyche amidst socio-political uprisings, Kotsiubynsky masterfully weaves a narrative where the fervent aspirations of the peasantry for land, freedom, and egalitarianism stand in contrast to the arid realities of their existence. In Fata Morgana, Kotsiubynsky bridges the  currents of socialist realism and impressionism by maintaining the traditional plot — villages and villagers — while also applying  more intricate forms of artistic convention, particularly, in portraying characters through themes of hope, justice, and death. Indeed, for Ukrainian literature in the early 20th century, the title itself — pointing to the fundamentals of the novel, encompassing the transitory nature of aspirations and desires — represents a literary novelty.

The novel is structured in two distinct segments; the first section, From Rural Moods, originally debuted as a short story in 1904, and serves as the thematic background for the subsequent evolution of the narrative. The untitled second half, published in 1910, immerses readers into the tumultuous currents of peasant unrest catalysed by the 1905 Revolution and its aftermath. Delving deeper into the intricacies of societal disquietude, Kotsiubynsky wanted to finish his novel with a third part, analysing the process of “pacification” and the ensuing decline of the village environment. Unfortunately, the author never rendered his ideas on paper due to his poor health; Kotsiubynsky died in 1913 from tuberculosis and heart disease.

But what was the reason for the seven-year interval between the first and the second parts of Fata Morgana? In one of his letters, the writer noted that life gives him rich material for his works of fiction, but that he selects the most interesting, the most typical, the things of public interest. Naturally, it took time to gather the information he needed for his writing. Indeed, Kotsiubynsky held dual roles throughout his life; he was a bureaucrat and an author. In particular, working at the Chernihiv Zemstvo, where he headed the agricultural statistics department, gave him valuable information about the situation in the Ukrainian countryside. This hard work based on years of deep analysis and research delineates his realist literary approach. Although the core of the novel lies in the conflict within the village, it does not represent the central part of Fata Morgana. Kotsiubynsky’s works as an impressionist are primarily the new foundations of his poetics: a departure from the traditional plot, a focus on the internal moral and ethical conflict, and the widespread use of symbolism, details, and colours. 

From soil to soul: Land as the central character

Within its pages, Fata Morgana intertwines the destinies of diverse village inhabitants across various societal strata — from marginalised land tenants to industrious labourers and affluent elites — depicting their collective descent into disillusionment as their dreams dissolve into thin air.

Although the novel ostensibly revolves around the lives of Andriy Volyk and his wife Malanka, Kotsiubynsky individuates land as the main character of Fata Morgana. Indeed, the characters are illustrated according to their interpretation of the land; the land lives in each character and controls their behaviour and actions. For Kotsiubynsky, the dreams of the characters represent their illusions. For example, Andriy dreams of working in the sugar factory as opposed to  farming due to its perceived stability, but, in the end, while working at the factory, his fingers are cut off. Malanka, on the contrary, dreams of having her own piece of land, believing it to be the domain of the wealthy. Indeed, she says that the land is kind to the rich, and “takes the poor only to the pit.” 

Given that serfdom had been abolished not long before, land distribution was still unequal. While the government aimed to cultivate the peasants into a politically conservative and land-owning group by enabling them to gradually purchase land from the nobility, peasants were restricted from selling or using the land as collateral to prevent them from becoming part of the working class. However, the allotments provided were insufficient not only to obtain profits from it but also to meet peasants’ most basic needs. This radical change resulted in the rapid development of capitalism, and the subsequent spread of Marxist ideas affected not only the city, but also the countryside. Influenced by these changes, Kotsiubynsky highlights the contrast between the hard-working class and poor peasantry, such as Andriy and Malanka, and the new emerging class – the rural bourgeoisie – such as the owner of the factory and the landlord Pidpara. 

Andriy and Malanka’s daughter Haviika, together with her love interest Marko Hushcha, represent the youth, and their hopes for the land to be free. Marko returns to the village and brings the idea of an organised fight for the villagers’ rights and that “the land is not the landlord’s, but the people’s.” Haviika represents hope and action; she not only supports him, but also disseminates pamphlets and contributes to the creation of a symbolic flag Land and Freedom. This detail is worth special attention considering that Land and Freedom was, in 1862-1864, a secret revolutionary society of intellectuals dissatisfied with the half-heartedness of the manifesto and the provision of Emperor Alexander II on the liberation of peasants from serfdom. While delving into Kotsiubynsky’s biography, one can notice that his wife, Vira Deisha, was a political activist and a revolutionary who faced arrest after returning to Chernihiv from Saint Petersburg. The subtle, yet resonant, characterization of Haviika, with her revolutionary ideals, could serve as a tribute, reflecting his profound admiration for his wife.

The apogee of Fata Morgana

In the second part of the story, the writer created a collective portrait of the rural masses in all its social differentiation and in all its. It is within the village that the true protagonists emerge — the peasants, whose agency becomes the essence of the narrative’s course. While Kotsiubynsky conceived the land as the central figure, emblematic of the contentious struggle between the poor peasantry and the agrarian elite, it is the indomitable spirit and collective struggle of the villagers that ultimately constitutes the focal core of his work. 

Consequently, in Fata Morgana, the main characters are symbolised not by individuals but by the amalgamation of rural folk and the land, as well as by their deeds and dreams. In depicting the confrontation between the rural masses and the elites, who held sway over the economy, Kotsiubynsky illuminated the profound clash central to the bourgeois democratic revolution, wherein the pressing concerns and necessities of the peasants were articulated. He also underscored the intense class conflict between the labouring peasants and the affluent landlords – later, they will be called kulaks by the Bolsheviks –  who were prepared to combat the rural underprivileged using any means necessary, including physical aggression against those involved in the movement. 

Kotsiubynsky recreates the peasant protests, the connection between the proletarian struggle and the revolutionary peasant movement, and depicts new people in the countryside — revolutionaries: Mark Hushcha, Hafiika, and Prokop Kandziuba, among others. Indeed, it was under the leadership of Mark Hushcha and Prokop Kandziuba that the peasants organised with the aim of taking away the lord’s estate and trying to manage it together, with the destruction of said estate and the prison becoming the apotheosis of the novel. And here, the Fata Morgana, the mirage… The revolutionary wave quickly subsides following the news of the army entering the neighbouring village, killing and arresting the rebels. The frightened villagers decide to punish a few to save the whole, killing Andriy and Prokip. In this passage, Kotsiubynsky illustrates how the typical perception of the peasantry tends to be influenced by feelings rather than rationality – typical of an impressionist. 

In the finale of Fata Morgana, allegorical hints permeate the text, harmonious with the overarching thematic framework of the novel. However, considering the events that followed the 1905 Russian Revolution – Stolypin agrarian reform and October Manifesto – one can clearly state that Kotsiubynsky’s idea to conclude this novel with the third part, i.e. the process of pacification, would have been ideal to understand what would be the future of the villagers, but also what ideological turn would Kotsiubynsky take. Even so, the second segment terminates with Marko, Haviika, and Khoma’s survival. They do not die, and with them, neither does the hope that the land will someday cease to be a mirage. 

Book details: Kotsiubynsky, Mykhailo, Fata Morgana, 1910, translated by Vitalii Borysov, 2023. Buy it here.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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