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Jaroslavas Melnikas (born 1959) is a presence in at least three cultures. He was born in Ukraine, and his earlier work (both literary and academic/critical) began there and in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. He is a great Francophile, and some of his novels was published by a major French publisher. And life has brought him to Lithuania, which he adopted and adjusted to with success that is hard to believe. He has written several novels and numerous pieces of shorter fiction in a language that is not his mother-tongue!  His work is an interesting mix of complicated philosophical ideas and popular, entertaining genres like sci-fi. The effect has been divisive – some love him, others loathe him. However, leaving no-one indifferent is quite an achievement in itself.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Nerijus Cibulskas

by
Ramūnas Čičelis

 

 

 Translated by Diana Barnard

 

Jaroslavas_MelnikasJaroslavas Melnikas, Te visad būsiu aš (May There Always Be Me). – V.: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2022.

Only about a hundred years old, the dystopian novel is one of the newest forms of narrative in Western literature. This genre’s writers boldly predict a future that, as both the narrator and the reader would wish, would be better unrealized. The dystopian novel thus speaks of an undesirable future reality. For centuries, the mimetic principles of prose nurtured by humanity (according to which fiction is supposed to convey what could have been, that is, to create a possibility) and utopians speaking about the desired future became obsolete in the twentieth century as massive global cataclysms, wars, and other crises made a beautiful tomorrow seem impossible. Today, the dystopian novel rules.

In his latest novel Te visad būsiu aš (May There Always Be Me), Jaroslavas Melnikas, a Lithuanian writer with Ukrainian roots, raises the question whether our planet and the people living on it have a future and if they do, what type of future it is. In this novel, the writer suggests that dystopian thinking speaks of the current helplessness experienced by our societies. According to Melnikas, turning back to the past is no longer possible (despite the need for humankind to return to nature, a concept promoted by the global mass media), while controlling the future is also no longer feasible. In his book, Melnikas depicts an Earth where everyone, with the help of brain transplant surgery, lives forever. The novel revolves around the idea of an artificial intelligence that cannot be controlled by a single individual or group. The sole purpose of this thinking machine is ensuring happiness for the majority of the planet’s inhabitants, and happiness is perceived not on an individual level but as a mass standard. Therefore, humans forswear the freedoms and rights that we are familiar with today and surrender to the system without questioning the universal order. A group of atavists who are prepared to choose death over eternal existence are treated in the novel as creatures that keep turning back to the past and who, eventually, have no place in the world.

According to the novel’s narrator, when history is no longer a support and when the future belongs to a thinking machine and the humans that obey it, the prospects for planning for tomorrow or even dreaming about it disappear. In this novel, the societal turning point – when humankind stops dying – is called the Big Leap. It is the final and almost finite change in reality that transforms the existence of society and the individual as well as what’s considered meaningful or unimportant. Melnikas's originality lies in his assertion that no future exists that would be even worth dreaming about: May There Always Be Me is a book that marks the end of any thinking about the future. While other authors of dystopian fiction are still deliberating about humanity’s possible future crossroads and choices, Melnikas is ruthless in claiming that after the Big Leap, a future that would depend on humans is no longer an option. The dead end that has been reached makes further evolution impossible.

A dystopian work is supposed to recreate the world as if anew – the writer must convey human conditions and destinies as well as the social, political, cultural, and everyday reality in which the protagonists find themselves. Melnikas's reality of the last future is of the kind that lets the readers themselves continue the author’s thoughts and consider whether the world of the novel is convincing. The narrator's personal life is depicted minutely and logically – they have no reason not to believe that, due to technological progress, such future of human existence is possible. Politics and the life of society as fantasized by the narrator make the reader curious about Melnikas’s biography. Melnikas was born and grew up in the Soviet system, and therefore his imaginings of the future in his work have deep links with how he lived in the past. May There Always Be Me is the ideal version of Soviet communist reality, far removed from the actual reality of the Soviet Union. In his novel, the future that Melnikas promises humankind is something that the naïve young people of the 1950s may have dreamed about in the countries of the Soviet bloc and the republics occupied by Russia. Wealth inequality, a stricter social hierarchy (except the supremacy of artificial intelligence and the designers of eternal life), monetary relations, or numerous other current issues of public life do not exist in those mass imaginings or in the novel. All these challenges are resolved and discussed as memories of the distant past, at the least. This shows that the “bright” future that Melnikas's imagination promises the reader is based on his personal childhood experiences and other Soviet people, and when these images are transferred to the novel, they do not appear original or ingenious. Cultural reality as such does not exist in this work, and all things past are referred to as ancient history. As Melnikas suggests, culture has always arisen from humans striving for immortality, from the desire to confront death. When humankind becomes immortal, any talk of literature, theater, cinema, and other non-technological creation becomes meaningless. Melnikas's future human is a being that exists for themselves and for their own sake and is concerned exclusively with the everyday and the uninterrupted comfort of being.

Is Melnikas's attempt at fantasizing the world as it could really be in the future successful? As the book goes on, it becomes clear that numerous aspects and phenomena of that future are rooted in the present. Humanity’s ever-increasing dependence on technologies, human lives lived with less and less willpower, and the growing tendency of humanity’s retreat from traditional public life would indicate that the author of May There Always Be Me is speaking about what possibly may happen. Melnikas's novel demands resistance from its reader; it demands inner protest that acquires public forms, which would assert the need of Western civilization to turn back – not to the time of Jean Jacques Rousseau and his postulated naturalistic human existence, not to a medieval religious system that should protect a person from the hostile world, and not even to the modernist machine or the technological thinking that flourished in the post-modern epoch, but to the Greek humanistic cultural beginning of the Western world, which asserts yet again, in the Aristotelian manner, the need for moderation in art and life. Melnikas's novel portrays a type of a human who has already overcome their passions, their occasional tendency to kill other people, and many other evils. And yet the order and laws of futuristic reality of May There Always Be Me, not in literature but in the lives of all of us in the future, can be overcome by a small but fundamental shift of attention, not just backwards but to the beginning of beginnings, which is not only about moderation but also about balance, and not about the Melnikas-style harmony of a human who is contented with everything but rather about a planet that has not been lost to controversy and diversity. In this light, Melnikas's world would appear sterile, lifeless, and simulated. Overcoming dystopia, just like multiple other solutions for the present and the future, depends on humanity's ability to remember the past. The narrator and protagonist of May There Always Be Me captures the boundary at which memory becomes lost. In the premonitions of an uncertain reality, the consolation of Melnikas's reader is that there are still people who are capable of preserving their individuality, who have memory, and who resist uniformity. In other words, the savior of future society is the individual who is not a mass specimen desiring truth and order for all and who does not manipulate memory to suit convenient needs. The last utopian possibility for a Westerner is a person who honestly remembers, who is mortal, and who creates humanistic artifacts rather than technical production.

 

 

 

 

 

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