Statement of Record

The Learned Dr. Leonardo’s Journey into the Switzerland of the Steppes with His Future Lover, the Beautiful Alceste

by Maik Yohansen


The Learned Dr. Leonardo’s Journey into the Switzerland of the Steppes with His Future Lover, the Beautiful Alceste

by Maik Yohansen


Introduction to the English edition

Maik Yohansen loved to mystify his own biography. He referred to himself as both Swedish and Norwegian, though in fact his father was a German. His mother’s ancestors, he claimed, included a Cossack who escaped Turkish captivity twelve times, met Miguel Cervantes in Algiers, and fell in love with the Spanish writer’s sister, making Yohansen a relative of his great hero. 

In this literary origin myth, Yohansen describes his ancestor falling for the dark-eyed Spanish woman as they sit on a boat, sailing back from Istanbul. The very same image is central also to his most famous work, The Learned Dr. Leonardo’s Journey into the Switzerland of the Steppes with his Future Love, the Beautiful Alceste. The protagonist, Dr. Leonardo Pazzi, also falls for a dark-eyed southern European woman, with whom he embarks on a journey by boat. And, like Yohansen’s family legend, their story is absurd: the characters are caricatures, their dialogues are travesties, the plot is obtuse. The usual elements of the novel are reduced to a series of eccentric jokes. But that does not mean that this novel contains neither heroes nor beauty. The heroes here are landscapes and literature. Yohansen loved the steppes, hills, and rivers of “the Switzerland of Slobozhanshchyna,” as this region, near Kharkiv, is affectionately known, and his stated aim for the novel was to subvert the relationship between landscape and character—characters become background decorations in a dynamic, rich evocation of place. This substitution is symptomatic of the novel’s larger ambition—to foreground language and literary form through the genius of estrangement, leaving the reader gazing in admiration at the beauty of literary mechanics. In this regard, Yohansen’s success is quite serious.

As well as inventing his past, Yohansen dreamt possible futures for himself. He tells us:

I, Maik Yohansen, will die in 1942 and, when I have settled down in the kingdom of shadows, I will converse with Hesiod, Heine and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. And I will do so in Ukrainian, because I am convinced that our flowering fatherland is a diamond among the free nations of the earth.

Yohansen was born in 1896, so prognosing only 46 years of life might seem pessimistic. In fact, it was optimistic. Yohansen was shot by the NKVD in 1937 in a forest near Kyiv. His final conversations in life were with NKVD officers, whose accusations of terrorism (as absurd and cliched as anything he parodied in his own work) he answered by denouncing the Soviet leadership as “hopeless” and “weak.” His subsequent conversations, with Heine and Cervantes in Ukrainian, would have been far more edifying.



Excerpt from Maik Yohansen’s The Learned Dr. Leonardo’s Journey into the Switzerland of the Steppes with his Future Love, the Beautiful Alceste.

Coelum, non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt. 

. . . only dull, thick-headed, loquacious idiots. Thus, landscape cannot be adequately treated in the litterature in the usual descriptive way. But if some writer should by chance come across the idea of shifting the reciprocal roles of the landscape and the acting persons, it would be quite a different thing. The persons, treated as mere cardboard puppets, as moving decorations can nevertheless impart proper movement to a description of a landscape (because of the natural tendency of the reader to follow their ways, as if they were real living people) and so a “Landscape-novel” could be made quite readable. But such a thing has still never been deliberately attempted.
(From an unpublished essay on “Landscape in the Litterature” by the author. Quoted for the use of critics only)[1]


“Even the worn, sleepy stone that lies between two old oak trees on the steep, forested bank of the Donets, the stone that serves as a highway for energetic red ants, even that stone is traveling.

“A human being, however, is not a stone. A human being wants to travel—whether it is a trip around one’s own apartment or, preferably, a voyage to distant lands.

“‘Whoever, today, right away, this very minute, is not ready to set off for India is devoid of the most elementary levels of human curiosity,’ declared a comrade of mine when he was asked why he spent his entire life inside his own room. Having said that, and without rising from his bed, he reached toward a pile of books and pulled out a catalogue of rifles—both manual and semi-automatic—from the company Webley and Scott and asked that he no longer be disturbed.

“They say also that a company of jolly young people, representatives of both the landowning class and the bourgeoisie, was traveling around the territory of the former Russian Empire with the aim of discovering precisely which snack was the best accompaniment to vodka. At each stop on their voyage, the young landowners and bourgeoisie drank and ate the customary local snacks. The following morning, having been carried to their rooms by their servants the night before, they carefully recorded their impressions of the snacks and the extent to which they facilitated the consumption of alcohol. Sadly, the revolution put a stop to their plans to publish their findings, and the general public will never find out which is best to eat with vodka—an Azov bream, a Caspian herring, or perhaps some Siberian pelmeni. And it would be foolish to hope that the aesthetically blind and utilitarian Soviet authorities would give funding for this type of research project. 

“In the meantime, it happens even today that people returning from travel abroad can recount only how the bathrooms are arranged in German hotels, what one can eat for lunch in Paris, how the servants dress in London or how the bedbugs bite in the hotels of Spain. They have communed with the European proletariat in the shape of prostitutes and stimulated the proletarian movement by giving the driver a two-mark tip to make him drive faster. They return to the Soviet homeland dressed in European trousers and with their pockets filled with rubber contraceptive devices.

“And yet this, too, is travel. Only, if I had my way, I’d arrange a much cheaper sea voyage for such a citizen.

“I’d pour him some vodka and give him one olive to chew on with each glass. I’d take his European trousers off him and sit him down in a barrel of salty water. Then, rhythmically rocking the barrel, I’d wait for him to start traveling through a sea storm of the greatest severity. His commentary on the situation would surely come in the form of the foul-mouthed commands of a sea captain and he’d soon end up in that ancient Latvian port that features in so many anecdotes on this topic.[2] Isn’t that right, my dear Rodolfo?”

This was what Don Jose Pereira said to his friend, the Irish setter Rodolfo, as they walked together through the steppe. Rodolfo had until then been listening rather distractedly to his elder companion’s lengthy narrative, since the steppe was filled with the scent-portraits of a great many hares, among which there arose suddenly the image of a great bustard, inscribed vividly in three scents, in concrete and relief, like a mezzotint; and there was not a square meter of ground that was not decorated with the tender miniatures of countless quails. Rodolfo reluctantly tore himself away from the cinematographic tableau of these scents and gave an official, albeit loving, wag of his tale. But seeing that Don Jose had not taken his Sauer from his shoulder, he understood that his master’s discourse was rather of a philosophical nature, and that his consciousness had not yet been penetrated by the great exhibition of scents. This did not surprise Rodolfo—he had understood long ago that Don Jose Pereira, his elder companion, was blind to scent to such a degree that the awful, oppressive, poisonous, chemical smell of his ladies did not prevent him from sitting in the same room as them and even kissing their hands. These aromas did not give Don Jose a headache and, indeed, after spending an evening with such a lady, an expression of sweet luxury would usually settle on his face as he sniffed the air.

These were the approximate thoughts of Rodolfo as he plunged through the rainbow colors of scent, and Don Jose Pereira, pleased that Rodolfo was listening to him and in full agreement, continued:

“You and I, Rodolfo, my red-haired friend, have embarked on a journey that, though it may be slow, will be filled to the brim with smells, images, and impressions (‘Full to the brim for some, not so much for others. . .,’ thought Rodolfo skeptically as he heard these words). You must agree that the slower the journey, the more details one notices, and the quicker it is, the fewer details, which gives rise to generalizations, schemes, abstractions, and philosophizing.

“The fastest journey, along the straightest line, is the one made by that moss-covered stone that lies on the steep bank of the Donets between two ancient oaks. The earth carries it round the sun and among the planets, and together with the sun and the planets it is hurtling at great speed in the direction of some distant god-knows-what. The depression in which it lies is its soft cabin, and its stone soul is thinking in gigantic, abstract, astronomical, philosophical propositions.

“And now remember how we flew by aeroplane from Berlin to Moscow, turning our path towards these steppes. The planets were nowhere to be seen and the sun stood like a policeman amid a blue pond in the early springtime preventing the old men from catching carp during spawning season. The sun stood amid the blue pond, and we saw the earth.

“The earth was like a geographical relief map. This was not the real, warm, bountiful earth, but rather an administrative view of the area showing geological, topographical, economic, and agricultural perspectives. Smaller rivers flowed tidily into larger ones, fields were divided according to the six-field rotation system, the forested massifs were laid out as they should be in all the correct places, and people populated the earth at a predictable and consistent volume per square kilometer.

“When we got on the train that was to heave us ever so slowly from Moscow to Kherson, the earth reared up on both sides of us like two naturalistic stage sets. It switched from being horizontal to vertical, turning from a geographical map into theatrical scenery. It baffled us with sparkling shingle and stones along the railway lines, it drew back the curtain of the pine trees from in front of a small, secluded lake, it led a horse on to the stage and the horse neighed in the meadow; the earth staged mass scenes involving traders and milkmaids at the stations—voices hummed and denarii clinked as they fell to the platform to pay for the milk. But the train kept moving, and the unmoving sets of the landscapes were once more in motion, those vertical plans of the earth.

“Our journey become slower and more colorful when I got on my bicycle, with my pack on my back, and you, my ginger friend, Rodolfo, ran behind me. Our straight path became crooked and capricious, there were no rails to limit my light wheels, and the earth lay on two levels—vertical and horizontal. Ground squirrels danced by the road and plunged into their burrows, the scent of wild thyme filled the air, a dung beetle solemnly crossed the rails—and I, pointing my wheel in his direction, crushed his beetly life with a tasty splat—sparrows twittered and, like a handful of millet, scattered themselves before the bicycle. A cloud of dust rose in the air: the tires hissed along the path, my keys, like a metal wellspring, gurgled in my kitbag and a sprig of mugwort, caught up in my spokes, rattled, registering the turning of the wheels.

“And now we leave the bicycle in the village and leave the path. We move very slowly, all our plans are forgotten, and only embodied bodily life remains. Now my feet, and not wheels, trample the dust and grass, and my vision and hearing and sense of smell are so full of living life that I am simply unable to describe it fully. Slowly, slowly, we move through the steppe.

“We wander and sway and grow weightless in the steppes. Slowly and freely we enter the endless freedom of the steppes. By your tense back, your burning eyes, your vigorous tail, I see, my ginger friend Rodolfo, that you have entered most completely into the steppe. Your childhood, your years of rigorous study, your refined education, all this disappears like a dream in the face of the sun-drenched expanses of the steppe. You, subtle and ironic Irishman, you have already become a wild hunter of the fields.”


  • [1] This passage appears in English in the original and is reproduced here without correction.
  • [2] The reference here is most likely to Riga. The phrase “to go to Riga” is a euphemism for vomiting, given the phonetic similarity between the name of the city and the relevant Ukrainian verb.


Forthcoming from Harvard University Press, November 2023. 




For more works of Ukrainian literature translated by UILLEAM BLACKER, see here, here, and here


About the author

Maik Yohansen (b. October 1895 in Kharkiv, d. October 27, 1937) in Kyiv, was a Ukrainian poet, writer, translator, literary theorist, dramatist, critic, and linguist of German and Ukrainian heritage. In 1925 Yohansen became a founding member of the literary group Vaplite; three years later, Soviet authorities banned the group. Yohansen's experimental prose used the technique of uchudnennia, or estrangement (that is, of making the ordinary appear strange or miraculous) to add humor to his material. He published short story collections, novels, travel sketches, and poetry throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1937, after openly accusing the Soviets of persecuting Ukrainian writers and intellectuals, he was charged with belonging to a terrorist organization and executed.

About the author

Uilleam Blacker is Associate Professor in Ukrainian and East European Studies at University College London. He writes mainly on Ukrainian literature and culture. His translations of Ukrainian authors have appeared in White Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Words Without Borders, and in numerous other publications and anthologies. His translation of Oleg Sentsov’s short story collection Life Went On Anyway was published with Deep Vellum in 2019. His translations of novels by Maik Yohansen and Taras Prokhasko are forthcoming with Harvard University Press in 2024.

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