Shtefan Smolei / Øòåôàí Ñìîëåé: Recipient of the Dukhnovych Prize for 2014
Shtefan Smolei / Stefan Smolej was born on September 13, 1933, in the village of Roskovce in the Medzilaborce district of eastern Slovakia. He studied at the gymnasium in the Slovak city of Zilina, but financial difficulties made it hard for him to continue his studies further. He served in the military and spent several years working in various capacities in the construction industry from which he retired in 1991.
Smolei began writing poetry as a young man during his years in Zilina. He says that he was inspired to write because of his deep longing for home and his native countryside. A naturally gifted writer and poet, he continued writing during his military service and afterward. Because he wrote in Rusyn, which was banned during all the years of Communist rule, he could not publish his work. This changed with the revolutions of 1989, and by 1991 he began to engage in cooperative work with the publishers of the new Rusyn-language newspaper Narodny novynky and Rusyn magazine, writing and publishing articles in Rusyn.
Smolei is devoted to capturing in his works—among which are pieces of both prose and poetry—something of the Rusyns’ past, particularly life in the village, so that it is not forgotten. His sources have been his own experiences and the experiences of the elderly people who are nourished by memories of the past. Buri nad Beskydamy (Storms Over the Beskyds) is a family epic novel which plunges us into the rural Rusyn setting, bringing to life daily activities and challenges. Through this entryway, Smolei guides us to an understanding of Rusyn history and culture from the early through later 20th century as one family’s life experience intertwines with the experience of that larger history and culture. Smolei himself writes that he penned this novel “in order to make young people aware at least in part of the difficult life in Rusyn villages in eastern Slovakia.” As all good writers, Smolei writes about an environment he knows intimately, and he writes, as he says, “from his heart,” as if he himself had experienced exactly those events about which he writes.
In this novel we meet the Kalyna family—a family which represents any number of Rusyn peasant families in the last century. The brothers Petro and Andrii are at the center of the book’s landscape. The older, Petro, is married; he and his wife have a young daughter. Like thousands of Rusyns at the turn of the 19th century and into the first quarter of the 20th century, he goes to America to work and earn money. Andrii, the younger brother, stays behind and is responsible for taking care of the extended family. Petro is arrogant, quick to mock others, a liar. Andrii is a modest lad, hard working, anxious to help whoever needs help. Conflicts that arise between the brothers have significant implications for the life of this family and for its destiny. World War II has an enormous impact on their lives. Petro, the stormy one, on his deathbed finally comes to an awareness of how he has led his life.
The novel is written in simple and straightforward language, and its engaging style draws the reader in. What seems an idyllic life described in the very beginning of the novel ends with a terrible, though perhaps not unusual, occurrence in the village context—the sudden and tragic death of a father—here the Kalyna father Mykhal, who leaves behind a wife and 5 children, including Petro and Andrii. In offering his help to neighbors, Mykhal is involved in an accident which results in a fatal injury. Smolei writes at the close of the first chapter:
“In great pain because of his wound, Mykhal took his last breath and died. His hands, those of a worker, remained lifeless lying across the chest of this still young man who was supposed to continue living his life. So many villagers had turned to him for help.
There was much weeping, regret, and sadness. Not only the family, but the entire village mourned. Largely because it was precisely Mykhal’s willingness to help others that had led to this—that his children were now orphans.
Hania, his wife, was now a widow. Her five young children now orphans, without a father. A husband left behind a wife, a father, his children. And just at the time when a father’s hands and help were most in demand.
And all this because of his goodness and willingness to help others.”
Thus ends the first chapter, and so begins the struggle of Petro and Andrii who now take center stage. The end of each chapter is crafted to urge the reader on. Shtefan Smolei is to be congratulated for his fine novel in Rusyn, but also for his life-long work to preserve the Rusyn language.