Monday, August 29, 2005

Books: Once There Was A Village (1974)

Yuri Kapralov's Once There Was A Village is part surrealistic stream of consciousness memoir, part narrative history of Alphabet City circa 1966-1971. Originally published in 1974 and reissued in 1998, the book is fascinating - particularly for anyone interested in the history of Slavic groups in the area.

After running through the extensive list of ethnic groups living in the East Village (or as he calls it, the Vostochnaya Derevnia) in the 1960s, Karpalov comments, "The Slavic Group was the largest and also the least visible." He believes they were inadvertently oppressed through their devoutness by their clerics, who "...exploited them far more than the System itself, mainly by teaching them to accept with grace all the shit handed them and to be eternally thankful that they lived in America."

The book gives all sorts of insightful details about the day-to-day lives of the Village's Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Carpatho-Russian (Rusyn) communities. One vignette details atrocities in Austria-Hungary that led to the emigration of one Rusyn to the US, to the East Village. Another describes the descent of a young Ukrainian man into heroin addiction and burglary.

More general details about the area's history are also there, including graphic descriptions of rioting and martial law on Avenue C, and the onslaught of junkies and squatters.

Artist and writer Karpalov was born in the Caucasus and came to the United States as a refugee, finally settling in the East Village in 1965. The book is currently being made into a documentary film, which should be completed by the end of 2005.

Check out Once Were Warriors: An unsentimental journey through Yuri Kapralov's Lower East Side, a 1998 review from the Village Voice.

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