• The Gaps Filled by Fiction: On Victoria Amelina’s Dom’s Dream Kingdom

    Héctor Abad Remembers a Rising Star of Ukrainian Literature Killed by Putin’s War

    “Stories have to save themselves however they can, leap from one dying body to another young, living body. It’s their last chance. Maybe they were murdered by a missile that fell on their heads by pure chance.”
    –Victoria Amelina
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    Victoria Amelina’s novel, Dom’s Dream Kingdom, flows with a swift and imaginative charm that at first makes it seem almost like a fairy tale or a fable for children. However, as you turn the pages, the intelligent grace, humor, and irony of Dom, the dog who narrates the story, gives it an increasingly deep and meaningful density. The narrator’s olfactory magic makes this book original and deft. The dog explains it like this: “It would be good not to tell my story with words, but with smells, with the smell of the traces that are scattered all over the place, waiting to be read. But I must speak to people in their own language.” The tale proceeds, despite the interference of words, thanks to the scents the dog picks up, and thanks to the tactile, intuitive, and auditory perception of his best friend and the book’s major protagonist, Marusia, the blind girl who grows in age, wit, and wonder with each chapter.

    The book seems to contain—and in fact does contain, through direct references and subtle allusions—the history of Lviv and Ukraine across the last century, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the First World War, the disintegration of Galicia, the Stalinist era with the deliberate genocide (Holodomor) that starved millions of Ukrainians to death, the Nazi invasion and its massacres, the Second World War and the triumph over Hitler, almost half a century of Cold War under the dominion of the Soviet Union, until independence and the Maidan Revolution. With an astonishing capacity for synthesis, Victoria Amelina manages, in this magnificent book, to fully incorporate history with a capital H into a simple story, the history of a modest but basically happy and fortunate family, the Tsilyks.

    I knew Victoria Amelina for only four days—the last four days of her life.

    This atypical family consists of grandfather Ivan (a Ukrainian colonel and former fighter pilot in the Soviet air force) and grandmother Lilya or Big Ba (of distant and uncertain origins); their two daughters, Tamara and Olha; and their two granddaughters, the two Marias (Masha, Tamara’s daughter, and the already mentioned Marusia, daughter of Olha, also known as Mama Olya). Marusia sleeps curled up on top of an old chest that she cannot open and in which she has deposited all of her fantasies. The white dog (Dominic, Domic, or Dom) has been abandoned by his owner for being a bad hunter, or simply given to the Tsilyk family. In short: five women, one man, and a dog, the canine narrator who perceives almost everything and relates everything with scents and descriptions of what those smells mean. These characters are joined, so to speak, by various absences: the absence of the husbands of the daughters, the fathers of the granddaughters, gone to Russia or the United States.

    The novel elapses and grows by way of temporal leaps that open our eyes to the past and the imperfect (stubborn, hidden, heroic, guilty) memory of this tormented region of Europe, on the boundary between East and West, that aspires to cease to be the eternal “blood lands” of invasions, war, and horror, yet despite its dreams of peace and independence is today again the scene of the war crimes of Mother Russia, that despotic and pitiless stepmother who once more impedes this nation and these two girls from growing up in peace and liberty.

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    One of them, Masha, who has never felt at home in Lviv, who longs for her childhood in the German Democratic Republic, prefers to have liaisons with oppressors from the north, and even chooses to give a child to an absent, unloving Russian father. Dom explains it better: “Masha smells different…because now she’s not only herself. Her blood has been captured by a foreign army in the form of a tiny creature. That’s what Masha wanted.” And the other, Marusia, recovers her sight to see that the world, her fantastic world, was not as beautiful as she imagined it, and that perhaps it would be preferable never to discover the secret contents of old locked chests. But even so, she will continue fighting for her childhood dreams, valiant and optimistic, serious and determined, until the end.

    Marusia is, for me, a self-portrait of Victoria Amelina, the courageous writer who dreamt of a definitive victory against Russia, a shakeup of its age-old imperial pretensions, but who could not see it because that same power, whose crimes she dedicated herself to denouncing, ended her life at the height of her creativity and intelligence, precisely when she was finishing another book, War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War, which will be published posthumously. As we know, Victoria Amelina was mortally wounded in Kramatorsk on June 27, 2023, caught at once by an Iskander high-precision missile, by Putin, and by fate: murdered by a missile that fell on her head by pure chance. Murder and chance, in this case, are not concepts that clash with each other, although it might seem illogical. Amelina’s words in this marvelous novel foresaw even her own destiny with a precise oxymoron: murdered by chance.

    *

    Back then, death could take away a person’s existence whether by chance or perhaps according to the fate inscribed on the palms of their hands.

    Marusia has the fortunate ability of seeming to be everyone’s sister.

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    I knew Victoria Amelina for only four days—the last four days of her life.

    It would never have occurred to me to ask her to show me the lifeline on the palm of her left hand. I suppose it was long and uninterrupted, like that of any healthy and vigorous young woman. However, the only time I made a personal comment to her, it was, in fact, about her left hand. “What happened to your middle finger?” I asked, pointing to a nail that was more black than blue. The bruise was very evident, but how did she get it? She told me something about air-raid sirens and anxiety about opening or closing a window that would shield her from the Russian danger, which was why she had that black mark on her finger, proof of recent pain. Trivial details, things that don’t matter much, are an indirect way to start a conversation.

    This conversation, however, was cut short, as were others we’d barely started. When a writer has not read another writer (I had not read anything of Victoria’s, and Victoria had not read anything of mine), communication between them is not easy, and it’s common for a sort of shyness tinged with guilt to settle between them. We writers are in the dark if we have not read, and we know it. In fact, the night of June 26, in the small Hotel GUT in Kramatorsk, we exchanged books as if we were donating blood: I gave her the Ukrainian translation of El olvido que seremos (Oblivion: A Memoir), and she wrote to her Spanish editor, José Manuel Cajigas, asking him to send me a copy of the Spanish version of Dom’s Dream Kingdom, Un hogar para Dom. Our intention, then, was to read each other, which would enable us to talk with more knowledge and more spontaneity the next time we met. After all, we writers are almost nothing, or rather, we are almost only what we have written.

    Now that, a couple of months after her tragic death, I have read some of Amelina’s poems, several of her luminous essays, and this lovely novel, I would have lots to talk about with her, a thousand things to ask. I think I would even ask for permission to call her Vika instead of Victoria, as her friends did. When we read writers, we become their friends, sometimes almost intimates, because nothing resembles us more than what we have written, and I believe no one resembles Vika as much as Marusia.

    If I could talk to Victoria now, I’d like to ask her, to start with, if Lepkoho Street, where the protagonists of her novel live (and which I have not found on any maps of Lviv), exists, or if it’s an invented name. I would ask her if Lepkoho is the same street as the one Stanisław Lem mentions in his memoir, Highcastle: “We lived on the second floor of Number Four Brajerowska Street.” Brajerowska, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was one of Lviv’s newest streets and was built on the land of the residence of E. F. Brajer, whom it was named after. According to an expert on Lem’s and Amelina’s hometown, “if they held a contest for the city where the street names had changed most frequently, Lviv would definitely win.”

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    In any case, without having to ask, in Dom’s Dream Kingdom there are many allusions to the fact that the Tsilyks’ home is the same apartment where Stanisław Lem, the great Polish (Ukrainian, Jewish, and Leopolitan) novelist was born and spent his childhood and youth. According to his biographers, Brajerowska Street was renamed Halana Street in the Soviet era, after the surname of a writer with solid communist credentials. Later, with Ukrainian independence, it was renamed Bohdana Lepkoho, after Bodhan Lepky, another writer, in this case one of the late nineteenth-century Ukrainian vanguard. When I reached this point, I’m sure Victoria could have explained to me, as a friend of hers explained, that “Ukrainian nouns and proper names also decline, so that Lepkoho Street means ‘street of Lepky’ (genitive case),” and Lepky Street and Lepkoho Street are one and the same.

    Another detail: Lem tells us that the pane of a casement window in his parents’ bedroom there was clear evidence of the violence experienced by Lviv; the bullet hole in the glass, with cracks running out toward the frame, was a remnant of the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918, in which both sides fought over the city. For Marusia an unmistakable sign of her home was precisely this same hole: “See that hole there? I remember this crack since the times of…Well, since those times.” Those times is how Marusia refers to her life before the surgery that restored her sight and, in a way, her life before the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence.

    I would also ask Victoria why she says the Tsilyk family lives on the third floor, which has a balcony, but in the biography and in photos of Lem’s childhood home in Lviv it says the Lems lived on the second floor, in the apartment with the balcony. And here she would have explained that, in Poland, as in much of Western Europe, the ground floor is not numbered, so what a Polish person calls the first floor is the second for Ukrainians, and the second the third, something I would understand perfectly because it’s the same in Colombia. Silliness, perhaps, but also details without which you can’t understand the exactitude of a novel, its precise and meticulous construction.

    But perhaps what I’d most like to say to Victoria, to Vika, is that the part of her novel I liked most occurs when Olha, Marusia’s mother, starts working at the antique shop and begins to invent fantastic stories about all the objects for sale. She decides that everything she doesn’t know about those useless things (old books, spoons, trunks, cups, helmets with bullet holes) will be imagined. And her daughter also learns this way of filling in an unknown world. “They began to invent things, to lie to everyone and to themselves, and nobody can stop them now. Fiction fills all the gaps. The two of them invent stories for every little object, whether it is a glass, a broach, or a wedding ring. And that’s also how Marusia invented her sight and her whole world, this city and this room” (italics mine). At the beginning of the novel Mama Olya is a history teacher, but she feels stifled because successive governments rewrite the syllabus, altering the truth of the past, what should or should not be taught about their country. If even history becomes a lie or fiction, that tendency to invent the past can be useful, if not in teaching, at least in commerce. After all, nobody wants to tell or admit what happened in the past, not even her father, “despite having lived it.”

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    Or is my bad ear letting me down? 

    Who knows why these things happen? And what it is they mean? It’s possible they don’t mean anything, and they’re just coincidences. 

    The last day of Victoria Amelina’s conscious life, on the way back from a training camp where our small group had spent some time with a friend of hers, a delightful soldier, we saw a white dog wandering in a field. Victoria watched him with unusual intensity and compassion. I didn’t understand why the sight of that stray dog was so moving to her. The previous day we had been with her in Kharkiv, the city retaken by Ukraine after it was destroyed first by Russia’s cruel attempt at occupation in the winter of 2022 and then by their rage at having to abandon it in the spring of the same year. And there, precisely, in Kharkiv, Victoria had introduced us to her friend Oksana, who took in and looked after dogs who had lost their homes during the war, whether because they had run away in terror from the fire and noise of shrapnel, or whether their house had been destroyed and their owners had died or been displaced.

    Amelina’s words in this marvelous novel foresaw even her own destiny with a precise oxymoron: murdered by chance.

    It was at this moment that our guide in Donbas, Catalina Gómez, Colombian war correspondent and Victoria’s good friend, explained this terrible collateral effect of the Russian invasion: countless abandoned or lost dogs in Ukraine, all in search of a home and owners who probably didn’t even exist anymore.

    Immediately, Victoria, as if to explain to me what she felt for that stray dog wandering the steppe, among wheat fields dotted with red poppies, handed me her cellphone, open to a photo where I could see her crouched down, hugging a beautiful white dog. “Her name is Vovchytsia,” she told me, “and I miss her so much. Vovchytsia in Ukrainian means ‘she-wolf.’” That photo of her dog explained it all, but she could also have explained in the words of Dom, the dog of her novel: “When you are a stray, you sleep little and restlessly, and almost never have dreams. Except for one. One in which you’re looking for a home.”

    With her twelve-year-old son, Andriy, and with Vovchytsia, Victoria was set to leave in a few days for Paris, where she would spend a year revising the book she had almost finished and working on various other projects related to her country, to Russian war crimes, and to her literature. If I had known at that moment Victoria’s last novel was narrated by a white dog, if I had known that dom means “house” in Russian and domik means “cottage” in Ukrainian, and that her whole book was no more than a whole family’s attempt to feel, at last, that Ukraine is their home, my gaze and my comments would have been less clumsy. But to understand a writer thoroughly you have to read her. You also have to hear her, but before having read her I could never have known how to hear the things Victoria was telling us.

    I must confess something. At that restaurant, the Ria Lounge, at that rectangular table where they sat us on the patio, I was in a white chair on the left side of Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian founder of the ¡Aguanta, Ucrania! movement, but since he sometimes speaks without enunciating, as if he were murmuring sentences in Sanskrit, and since I don’t hear well out of my right ear, half deaf, I decided to change places and moved to the chair on the other side of the table, on Sergio’s right. Victoria, then, took my place on the sofa, on Sergio’s left, opposite me. Catalina moved to where Victoria had been sitting. A waitress arrived a moment later with drinks. Since Kramatorsk, due to its proximity to the front lines, is under dry law, Victoria had ordered a non-alcoholic beer and Catalina a bottle of sparkling water.

    The server brought two glasses with ice for Sergio and me. Why? It was our last night in the Donbas, our last night with Catalina and Victoria. We wanted to drink a toast, to flout the law. Sergio had a bottle of whisky that I had brought him as a gift, hidden in his backpack. I remember the brand, Macallan, twelve-year-old, because it’s my favorite. Sergio bent over to fill my glass under the table. He handed it to me and ducked back down to pour his own. Seeing my glass with that amber-colored liquid, I said, looking at Victoria with concern, “It’s too obvious, they will discover us. I feel guilty.” Sergio was still leaning under the table, dealing with his drink. Victoria looked at me with that smile of hers, between ironic and sad: “You can say it is apple juice.” I smiled too and raised my glass to toast her. At that moment the inferno fell on us from the sky.

    The way Amelina’s book reached me coincided with yet another chance occurrence in the string of fateful moments of that evening on June 27 in Kramatorsk. The Iskander missile—which exploded on the reinforced-concrete terrace roof of the restaurant and smashed it down on top of the dozens of diners who were in the main room, and in the bathrooms, the bar, and the kitchen—fell at exactly 18:28. Some miracle of providence had them seat us at a table on the patio and not inside the restaurant, where another twelve people died (four children among them) and more than sixty people were seriously injured. Fate, supernatural intervention, or dumb luck decided that of the five who were sitting at the table, four of us were left virtually unharmed and only Victoria was fatally wounded.

    I fell to the ground, stood up stunned, dazed, and spattered with a dark liquid that looked like blood. Nothing hurt, but everyone thought I was injured. Once I got to my feet, I saw Victoria’s pale, calm face, leaning back slightly, without any apparent wound, with a very serene expression, but at the same time indifferent to the noise, the smoke, and the horror. Since I’d been told that the Russians usually fired two bombs at the same target in order to kill the rescuers as well, I ran away from the restaurant, from Victoria, from my friends, and from the agonized shouts of the wounded and the first responders. As I walked down nearby streets, all of them covered in glass and debris from the recent explosion, I received a message on my cellphone. I kept it and copy it here. It was from José Manuel Cajigas, of Avizor Ediciones. Date: June 27, 2023. Time: 17:34 in Madrid (18:34 in Kramatorsk). Message: “I’ve just left you a copy of Victoria’s book with your neighbor Mariano.” My reply: “We’ve just been bombed.” Cajigas: “How awful! Are you all ok?” Air-raid sirens sounded and I didn’t write back. I began to ask, left and right, for one thing: “I am looking for a shelter, I am looking for a shelter,” but nobody understood me. I must have seemed like a crazy old man.

    I was only able to write back to José Manuel, Amelina’s Spanish publisher, some three hours later, at his insistence, from the hospital where we’d gone to find out about Victoria, who had been evacuated by ambulance: “We are all fine, except Victoria. She is in surgery with a head injury.”

    Victoria’s novel, the same one I’ve been reading and rereading for weeks and am now writing about, was handed to my neighbor a few minutes before the Russian missile, death, fell on us from the sky. What does this mean? Nothing, just another chance coincidence. But also, for me, a responsibility, an anonymous signal (emitted by nobody) that reminds me of the importance that this story, this novel, that country, that invasion, that author, must have in my life forever, from that moment on. The transcendence, furthermore, and especially, of that person atrociously murdered by the Russians, Victoria Amelina, who died on July 1 in the Dnipro hospital, where she was taken the day after the attack. This wonderful writer I had not read when she was fatally wounded in front of me, but who now lives in my memory and lives, most of all, in the words, scents, and stories of her books.

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    “A Country to Call Home” by Héctor Abad appears in the latest issue of Brick Magazine.

    Héctor Abad
    Héctor Abad
    Héctor Abad is a Colombian writer, editor, and translator. His books—including The Joy of Being Awake, Recipes for Sad Women, Oblivion: A Memoir, and The Farm—have been translated into multiple languages.





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