Empathy – the only thing that will save us : anthropology of Homo Compatiens in the novel of Victoria Amelina

Kateryna Shmeha

pdf: Empathy – the only thing that will save us

After the huge number of projects and books that have been published during the Revolution of Dignity and still breaking now, the book of Victoria Amelina “November Syndrome or Homo Compatiens” is the least connected with the events in winter 2013-2014. At one of the presentations, the author confessed that the idea of the book appeared long before the Revolution of Dignity, but in the process of writing, she had decided to change the storyline, because she just could not react to what was happening around. But the theme of the Maidan wasn’t her main textual strategy, hasn’t changed the original plan, which consisted in covering the topics of human sympathy, and lack of it too. Maidan arises before us at the end of the book with it connected the culmination of the work and as the Russian formalists would say – the effect of bewilderment the reader.

As far as, this book was a debut of Victoria Amelina, many people have been interested in it, because the person of author was the mystery for them. Therefore, it was difficult to predict what we can expect from reading. Some questions that troubled the imagination of readers and critics, the author said herself during presentations and meetings that took place in different cities of Ukraine. Generally, questions concerned the double title of the book and, of course, the theme of Maidan. For many readers the author answers probably were disappointed. As “November Syndrome” isn’t a book about Maidan as our Independence Square, where Revolution of Dignity took place. This book is about the various “maidans” which had raged in different countries around the world. That’s why, the “maidan” as a topos of intertwined with “maidan” of soul in text structure “November Syndrome”, speaking thus implicit textual structure, not as thematic strategy.

Amelina’s book filled with symbolism, myths and biblical allusions. It has polyphonic structure, speaks to us millions of voices, in different languages, cultures and eras. The same applies to the storyline. This is not a story with a linear type of presentation where the event takes place slowly in space and time. The main line branches off all the time, supplemented by stories of different characters, countries, which combines the figure of the main character – Kostya Nechay. The symbolism of the maple leaf depicted on the cover of the book, there is not just the fate of individual, which always associates with him as detached leaf of the tree, but also in building a plot that resembles as a web of veins on the leaf.

Way of thinking of the main character is mythological. From the first lines he equates himself to the ship “Argo” sailors of whose had been closing ears with aim to stopped singing of sirens, as subsequently Kostya have to learn how to abstract from the annoying voices in his head. These voices – a gift, but all his life he believed that it was his illness curse. It was the gift of compassion, empathy that certifies the common feelings, empathy connection. Through this connection, sympathizing with others, Kostya could penetrate the feelings and thoughts of any person, regardless of his place of residence and whether he is familiar with this person or not.

In addition, the essence of this gift was that he could not just quietly endure another pain, but also facilitate to it, or even try to prevent it. No wonder that he choose his life motto lines from the poetry of Lina Kostenko “Tsavet tanem! – How to say goodbye Armenians. / Your pain take over. Your Grief in me. “. However, almost until his last days Kostya remained passive observer. He was able to ease the pain of his loved Lisa, when she had been lying burnt and useless, could try to prevent self-immolation of desperate young man Mohamed Bouazizi, hatred or decrease Chechen boy Vanya. Nevertheless, he had not did that, because he believed that his gift was needless. Kostya’s story recalls with the parable about the talents, with only one difference: Kostya did dig his talent, even managed to use it during the Maidan, saving his dying colleague Tolik and the young soldier of “Berkut”, or just one of the soldiers who stood on the other side of Maidan’s barricade.

Along with the existing myths there are many biblical allusions like “sprinkle ashes”, “the last becomes first” etc. However, this is only on the surface, because the religious grounds of “November Syndrome” is much deeper. Religious thinking is manifested in episodes plug that make the whole story bizarre, fantastic and instructive at the same time. People, which one Kostya forgot, even the most native like his grandmother, his loved Lisa, the best friend Wamba, became for him the past stage and got on board of the mental plane. The man without a face was simultaneously pilot and conductor on the board. Or rather that men had both all face. He was God and Devil, knew everything about everyone. He was Kostya himself, that his side, which he carefully hid under the shell of indifference and cynicism. Although, maybe it was not a shell, or a mask, because life still made him a cynic, taking away all the most precious: father, mother, grandmother, Lisa

The second part of the book starting from the chapter “Temple”, in which Kostya have been waiting for a new life outside the orphanage. Although the character didn’t associate himself as religious man, because in his childhood religion was taboo, and when matured, there was no one to teach him the faith; he turned to God in the most difficult moments of life, like all people. And perhaps that religion was not commonplace for him, but something really sacred, he sadly learned that the priest got money for his work, as well as Kostya got for his gift that he sold as a commodity, leaving the orphanage. The first that Kostya had noted when he came to Maidan there was an old woman with a bag of snow on her back. She fell down and the young man, seeing this, ran to raise her and with a smile on his face assured that everything will be fine. And Kostya believe in it because the guy looked like Jesus Christ. Moreover, Kostya seemed to believe that he was Christ, Christ who came to Maidan to raise those who falls.

In the “November Syndrome” combines seemingly irreconcilable: ˗ religion, Christianity, Islam, paganism; myths and rituals – ancient and modern; ˗ revolutions in Ukraine, Tunisia, Egypt; Women from Armenia and walks in Venice. And all this weaving for one – to show that people in all parts around the world are the same: a young dark-skinned women just feel ashamed of their nakedness to the stranger, as it would felt her age-mate in Ukraine or Armenia; father sending his son into the street in Egypt, worried about him and ready to sacrifice his live for the sake of his son lived, as it would made Tunisian; Ukrainian woman suffers from her husband’s indifference and crying at nights, as well as the Egyptian ones.

Victoria Amelina tried to show us the power of the human spirit and feelings. That, what makes us Human. Sometimes contrast helps her. As at the beggining of the book, in chapters about an orphanage, in which the children actually lived by law of animals: the strongest survives. After a brutal initiation ritual ˗ beaten to a pulp, Kostya realized that if you want to survive here, you have to beat. You cannot be good, so it makes no sense to wait for the goodness of someone. As the only ray of sun in everyday orphanage darkness was the teacher Nina Yosypivna, who always had a very delicious gingerbread in a pocket. However, Kostya was so accustomed to the indifference and cruelty that did not notice kindness and affection. So, when the teacher had disappeared – not even noticed that. In his memory instead of goodness stays only great taste of cookies. Subsequently, this pattern of behavior will become familiar to Kostya. He was not interested in his family, just forgot them and planted aboard an imaginary plane. In fact, Kostya did not live his life. His life was a puzzle with dozens of other lives, other experiences, which he, however, did not experience as his own. Maybe because he felt nowhere “his own man” because he did not want to get used to someone, let to heart. Because he had a sad experience. No wonder that from the first pages we are confronting with the image of a maple leaf, which is cut off from the branches, yellowed, waiting for it`s death under the people feet. This image like self-identity of the character goes through the entire text. Kostya had the same attachment to the place, at home where his wife waiting for him, but he doesn’t love her, and the only person he ever loved was Lisa, but she has been lost and forgotten. Maidan as a place where everyone was in the right place where should be, “put Kostya in his place” because there he finally felt himself at home and found his home in Lisa’s eyes.

Maidan transformed him presented the meeting with the only native person that he so many years trying to forget. But didn’t. On the Maidan he finally realized the essence of his gift and that his gift should be effective, not only passive observation sympathetic. The character realized how much he had lost, how many have not did. Perhaps he remembered a conversation with Egyptian women Loftiya that the death of one leaf is actually unimportant, no one is crying over fallen leaves. The tree is important, and it should be maintained. So, Kostya goes to death, as well as many young guys who likes fallen leaves, lay under feet, only to have survived our solid tree – Ukraine.

Therefore, what can be more human quality than empathy – the ability to look at the world through the eyes of another person, look into his sadness and gladness and “take ones pain over”? Probably not. For only sympathize we become one with the whole world, and gets rid signs of humanity. Only being interested in someone else’s life we will be able to understand what is wrong with our life. Viktoria Amelina’s book makes the world looks wider to realize that there are not only our local problems, deaths of our people. It opens our eyes to the fact that in Tunisia are violating human rights, bringing to self-immolation. That in Egypt can either beaten to death the innocent boy, Khaled Said. This book is about unity – the man and the world. Therefore, “We are all Khaled Said”.