What links Voltaire, a smuggling ring and a modern-day literary maestro?

The threads to this triangular case began in unknowing earnest on July 18, 2012 when Slovak police stumbled on an unusual finding by their easternmost border: a secretive 700-metre-long burrow that is now popularly known as the “Cigarette Tunnel”. This came with a miniature, purposely built underground train and carriages that ran on rails directly under the EU Schengen borderline and into Ukraine, plainly part of a sophisticated international smuggling operation.
14. February 2022 15:23

The battery-operated device would begin its numerous go-between journeys from the quiet, leafy and unassuming outskirts of Uzhgorod, Ukraine, which overlooks the immediate border area, and arrive at a timber storage unit in between the sleepy Slovakian villages of Vyšné Nemecké and Nižné Nemecké. The meticulous set-up was mainly used for importing tobacco, drugs and trafficked people from east to west.

The tunnel had been dug by professionals with modern mining equipment, probably at least a year earlier. At given times, consignments were loaded onto 16 trucks and came complete with driver. On arrival he would ring a bell and his partners would open a trap door to unload the contraband.

It was assumed that much of the tunnel construction had begun on the Ukrainian side, where the building of several houses would have allowed the clearing and transporting of large quantities of earth and rubble without suspicion. Local people merely thought that a swimming pool was being made.

No one lived in this particular house in Uzhgorod, and it was owned by a well-known businessman in the area. Although the going was good for a while, more and more people became involved, some at the top got greedy, and eventually a tip-off meant the secret was out. Finally, upon discovery of the tunnel, this remarkable engineering feature was blown up and flooded, and is now clearly redundant. Even so, there are apparently more tunnels appearing along this 100-kilometre stretch of Slovakian-Ukrainian borderline.

Ironically, near the tunnel on the Ukraine side is a nondescript shop called “Europa”, which can be seen as a signpost pointing the way there. All this and more made me wonder: how many tunnels are there today leading to Hungary?

This episode was the inspiration for Ukrainian author, translator and acclaimed literary master Andriy Lyubka to write his compelling book “Carbide”, which is a contemporary take on Voltaire’s “Candide”. The latter is a darkly satirical novella published in 1759 that offers an insightful portrayal of the human condition, but it is the modern-day “Carbide” that takes one on a journey to the underworld of the Ukrainian smuggling industry.

Tys, an idealistic history teacher, seeks to better the lives of average Ukrainians by reuniting them with the rest of Europe. His plan involves digging a tunnel leading from the imaginary western Ukrainian city of Vedmediv (loosely based on the author’s home-town of Vynohradiv, known as Nagyszőlős in Hungarian), which is 20 kilometres from Hungary itself. This tunnel is the centre of a hare-brained scheme to force the European Union to grant Ukraine admission by smuggling its entire population into a member country.

Realising that he won’t be able to complete this large-scale project by himself, Tys, the would-be “Moses of Ukraine,” recruits his childhood friend, now a big-time smuggler, who, in turn, brings in many other participants, including the corrupt mayor and a woman who traffics in human organs. Soon enough, Tys’s once-noble idea mutates into an elaborate smuggling operation. Once the mayor sanctions the project – in exchange for his cut – they brazenly start building the Fountain of Unity, which is actually just the tunnel, in the middle of town

This is a character-driven novel, with a memorable cast of eccentric Transcarpathians, that will instantly charm the reader. Even the satirical content is propelled by the characters’ fully realised personalities, since they function as caricatures of certain elements of contemporary Ukrainian society.

Tys’s philosophical musings on Ukraine’s future and its longing to join the rest of civilised Europe sound absolutely ludicrous, especially since he has no coherent plan, just pathos-filled babble fuelled by post-Maidan populist rhetoric. Icarus and Mircha, the two primary smugglers in the novel, and Zoltan Bartok, the mayor, reflect the unvarnished reality of contemporary Ukraine, where business comes before lofty ideals.

At times, it feels as though Icarus and Mircha were spawned by Russian writer Isaac Babel’s fictional character Benya Krik in “Odessa Stories”, as they too live in a society that marginalises them and denies them social mobility, pushing into an illicit business. Whether in Babel’s 20th-century book or Lyubka’s 21st-century Transcarpathia, crafty individuals rise to the top, often skirting the law in the process.

Lyubka’s love of history equips him to put the events of the novel in their western Ukrainian context, which will make it especially appealing to those interested in the region. Moreover, he is steeped in Western literature and culture, to the point that he often speaks of “writing American literature in Ukrainian,” so the novel will be accessible to any audience. Readers will be able to appreciate the Ukrainian flavour and explore what is said about the meaning and value placed on human life on the fringes of civilisation.

As well as being originally written in Ukrainian, this 2015 novel has been translated into English, Polish, Serbian, Slovenian and Lithuanian, and comes highly recommended by me.

“Carbide” is available to buy online at www.jantarpublishing.com/product-page/carbide-by-andriy-lyubka

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