Michael M. Naydan, Woskob Family Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the Pennsylvania State University, is a prolific literary translator of contemporary poetry and prose from Ukrainian and Russian. He has published over 30 books of translations and more than 100 articles and translations in literary journals. He served as Co-Editor and extensive translator for the recent Trafika Europe quarterly journal issue, Ukrainian Prayer.
His anthology of Ukrainian poetry, A Hundred Years of Youth (Litopys Publishers, 2000), co-edited with Olha Luchuk, includes over 100 of his own poetry translations alongside biographical sketches of 100 authors. His translation of Perverzion by the preeminent contemporary Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych (Northwestern University Press, 2005) received an Award in Translation from the American Association in Ukrainian Studies. His translation (with Svitlana Bednazh) of Larysa Denysenko’s novel The Sarabande of Sara’s Band (Glagoslav Publishers) was chosen as May 2013 Editor’s Pick by World Literature Today. He compiled, co-translated and edited Herstories: An Anthology of Ukrainian Women’s Prose, which was published by Glagoslav Publishers in 2014. And with Slava Yastremski he has published two books of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry in translation: After Russia (Ardis Publishers, 1992) and The Essential Poetry (Glagoslav Publishers, 2015).
The following excerpt is from his brand new novel, Seven Signs of the Lion, just out this week from Glagoslav Publications. The book tells of a long-term visitor from the United States rediscovering his heritage and homeland in today’s Ukraine.
THE ORBS AT PIDHIRTSI CASTLE
by Michael M. Naydan
Even after his visit to Ivan the Ghostseer, Nicholas had more skepticism than any real belief in the legends and myths that so many shared with him (from scientists and scholars to street cleaners and check-out girls), though it was all in fun. There was a consistency in what they said with small variations, a kind of collective mass awareness of the subject. One incident shifted him a little closer toward belief – a visit to the Castle at Pidhirtsi with his friend Vira, his actress friend from the Zankovetsky Theater. Vira had the day off and her little boy, a budding actor at age five or six, was being taken care of by his grandmother for the day. It was a typical story. Vira fell in love, got married at 18, got pregnant with a guy from Slovakia and had a child at 19, and by 22 realized her husband, who was five years older than she, wasn’t able to cut loose from his carousing ways. So too many nights when he didn’t come back home proved to be the tipping point for her. But she did manage to finish her training in acting and was slowly moving up the ladder to main roles at the theater. Nicholas had met her through Jan Shchurakiwsky, whose wife was friendly with her. Vira wasn’t what you would call a classic beauty, but she was an original and just glowed a natural glow. She had a slightly elongated face and a dimple in her chin, high cheekbones, and thin wispy blondish auburn hair. She had a small dark birthmark on the right side of her face that gave her an extraordinarily distinctive look when you saw her up close. She was really easy to talk to, so Nicholas enjoyed doing things with her from going on walks to seeing performances at the Zankovetsky Theater next to the Opera House or one of the other theaters in town. He wasn’t, he thought, romantically interested in her, though once in a while he mulled it. That fear of ruining a good thing, a good friendship always seemed to get in the way.
It was an hour’s drive to the old palace through hills and fields, with the only rest stop – a roadside tree behind which one could take a bathroom break. The palace had been built by a Polish nobleman if he remembered correctly – by the name of Pototsky. No, he found out later that he was wrong. The oldest mention of it was 1440. It became the property of Polish nobleman Stanislaw Koniecpolsky in 1633 and became a well-known stopover for Polish nobility on their way to Ukrainian territory. It had been turned into a tuberculosis sanitarium during Soviet times when they just basically let it fall into ruin. The Soviets were good at that – one of their great success stories as an empire – letting historical treasures fall into ruin. The dark stone on the outside of the building was as strong as it could be. The inside was crumbling with stucco coming off the walls all over the floor, and the wood in the doors and windowsills rotting. They were in the process of remodeling the palace, with a ways to go yet. “They say there are spirits here that haunt the place – they’re supposed to be those of the patients who died,” Vira said to him with a lot of conviction.” “Sure, sure, I don’t really believe that,” he answered as he walked through one of the first floor rooms. “There’s nothing to take pictures of inside,” he added, “let’s look around outside.” Nicholas pulled out his Minolta camera and began to take snapshots of the palace from all four sides. It was mostly a rectangular building set on the top of a small hill that was level with the ground in the front and dropped down on its other three sides. The weather was picture-perfect. Sunshine. Not a cloud in the sky. Pasture land, fields and forests in every direction. As he walked around the palace grounds, Nicholas felt a slight chill from time to time. “I bet it’s the spirits,” he thought to himself and laughed at the thought. “Just a gust of wind.” He didn’t dare tell Vira. She’d give him the entire song and dance about the spirits – and he just didn’t want to deal with it. A week later after he developed the roll of film at a shop on Peksarska Street, his jaw dropped. On two of the pictures there were five or six translucent orbs of different sizes. He asked the cashier what they were. “Must be drops of water on the lens,” she answered matter-of-factly. “Why don’t you check the negatives?” Nicholas pulled them out and saw they were there on the negatives too. No scratches or markings of any kind on the negatives – just the images floating and transparent with the palace behind them. Water on the lens? It wasn’t raining… It wasn’t early morning dew… And they didn’t appear in any of the other negatives except on those two. “Maybe you took those shots pointing at the sun,” the cashier added. “No, the sun was behind me,” he replied with a small bit of hesitation. “I don’t believe in this kind of stuff, but everybody I meet here does,” and he laughed a nervous laugh. There are many mysteries in the world, this was just one of them waiting for an explanation.
NB: In 2011 an episode of the American TV show Ghost Hunters was devoted to the castle under the title “Ghosts Of The Eastern Bloc: Ukraine And Poland.”
You can purchase Seven Signs of the Lion, just out from Glagoslav Publications, right here.
Trafika Europe showcases new fiction and poetry in English translation from across the 47 countries of Council of Europe.
Check out our latest issue: Trafika Europe 8 – Romanian Holiday – free online.
Our first book, Trafika Europe: Essential New European Literature, Vol. I, is out now from Penn State University Press.
Some of the best new literature from Europe
And announcing our brand new European Literary Events Calendar! This free, curated Calendar helps you find (and promote) literary events accessible to English-language speakers in, from and about the 47 Council of Europe countries. Check out our brief (3-minute) introductory video below to see this flexible new Calendar in action, and learn how you can list your events: https://youtu.be/dW-aQaE0r3Q