Lviv and Prague: a tale of two cities


The award-winning Ukrainian novelist and short story writer Natalia Matolinets is fascinated by the layers of common history shared by the cities of central Europe. She was born and lives in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which, she says, has many similarities to Prague, both in its beauty and in the complexity of its past. She is in Prague for a two-month residency, as part of the UNESCO City of Literature project. David Vaughan went to meet her in the atmospheric café of the Scouts’ Institute, in the courtyard of one of the old houses on the Old Town Square.

Natalia Matolinets  | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International

“I’m a writer, whose speciality is urban fantasy and talking about cultural heritage and combining it with urban legends and magic. And I am very interested in exploring Prague because it’s part of my new project. It’s not my first project about Prague. I already have one trilogy, also of urban fantasy, which takes place in Lviv and Prague and Budapest, so I really wanted to come here and spend some more time here. From the first time I visited the city I knew that this is perhaps where my stories belong, and this year one of my books was actually published in the Czech Republic. This is an urban fantasy that takes place in Lviv, but later on the characters move to Prague to explore it as well.”

Tell us a bit more about what you mean by urban fantasy.

“It consists of stories that take place in urban locations. This genre developed not long ago and became really quite popular because urban locations are something that most of the readers belong to now. It usually takes place in big cities, but when I started writing it myself, I wanted to say more about my native city Lviv and about ties it has with its complicated history, about ties it has with different European locations. Also, urban fantasy is very good as a place where you can have a meeting point of different locations, personalities and legends, and you can mix it all together into a story which will give the reader the opportunity to dive into this location.”

Your home city of Lviv is remarkably little known, given its size and beauty. I remember the first time I visited Lviv more than 25 years ago, I was bowled over by what a beautiful city it is. It has many layers of history, going back many centuries.

Lviv | Photo: enelene,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“As a native of Lviv, I really love learning about the history of my city, and I agree with you that it’s complicated. Lviv is complicated, not only for people from other countries, but even for Ukrainians, because it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was the capital city of the region. For many centuries it was a melting pot in our region, and since the founding of the city it was a place where a lot of people came to from different countries. We had the community of Armenians and the Jewish community. We had Italian architects and Germans, and now we are discovering our history. I think this rediscovery is also very important for Ukrainians as well, because many people don’t know what happened. It was forgotten; it was forbidden, and partially my work is also about bringing up these memories, brining up these names, and telling readers that this majestic city is yours. It’s your heritage.”

There is also much pain in the city’s past. If you look at the Jewish and the Polish history of Lviv, there are a lot of wounds that remain. It is not just a happy process.

Lviv | Photo: temporalexu,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“It’s not only happy, but it needs to be done, because I really want people to know about my city and understand it. I know that the Poles and the Jewish community and different communities that we had in Lviv that were erased and destroyed, they also have their own histories, their own memories. They also have places they come back to and places they have memories about. I know it is complicated, but I think a writer’s work is to explore it, and I know that as a Ukrainian writer my agenda – if I may put it that way – is to speak about the experience of Ukrainians, because it was not so widely spoken about before.”

You were born in Lviv, and your family comes from the city.

“Yes, my family is in Lviv for many generations, so everything I write about Lviv’s history also has some connection with the past of my family or with some memories I got from them. This is why it’s very special for me, because I don’t like stereotypes, and I know that most stereotypes give you a black-and-white picture and they give you no explanation. If you have cities like Lviv with so many layers of history and tragedies, and also victories, and when you have it with so many points of view, you can’t just have it black-and-white. You need to explore a lot.”

Photo: Magdaléna Fajtová,  Czech Radio

It's not by chance that we have met in a café. I know that you are a coffee-lover. You have written one short story about a very special café in Lviv – a fictional café. Could you read us a bit from the beginning of the story, to give us a flavour of this café?

“Yes. This is a short story, my first story that came out in English, commissioned by a Canadian magazine this summer. It’s called ‘A Box for Buttons, Tips and Rose Petal Jam’. I need to give some context. Rose petal jam is a speciality from the Lviv region, and always for Christmas we make some sweet stuff with it. So it’s a very festive thing for us.”

If someone orders coffee with rose petal jam, you will always find a common topic for conversation. Vyshnia did not reach that conclusion right away, but after long days of work, you unwittingly start to build chains of associations. After all, rose petal jam is a primordial Galician Holy Grail — an echo of Christmas carols and the crunch of snow in the darkness when you can already smell that scent on the stairs as you return home. Pampukhy, glistening with oil, lie in a bowl. An equal number of them are stuffed with poppy seeds as with blueberries, but only a few, the most coveted, are filled with rose petal jam, sweet like July afternoons bathed in the buzzing of bees and sunlight. When Vyshnia was only learning to notice the unusual, she thought that magic was her aunt plucking off the fragrant petals and turning them into a small, deep-hued jar for the winter, which people in Lviv take out just before Christmas.

So, rose petal jam holds too many memories, and, as they say, those who know, know.

You can find the whole story, translated by Hanna Leliv, at:

That’s a wonderfully sensory description. You then go on to describe the café. There are different encounters. We step into the world of alchemy. I was fascinated by the fact that Lviv is a city both of alchemy and of cafés, because it brings us straight back to where we are now, Prague, which is also a city of cafés with a strong magical history.

Photo: Magdaléna Fajtová,  Czech Radio

“Yes. I always remark that my coffee addiction is proof that I am a true Lviv native person. The coffee tradition of Lviv comes from the Austro-Hungarian time, when we were inspired by the Viennese café and had a lot of coffee houses.”

And having been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is something you have in common with Prague.

“Yes. I think that’s one of the reasons why I find Prague so fascinating, because we have some shared history, and we also have this magical atmosphere. I was very interested when I discovered all the stories of alchemists here – even the street of alchemists – and for me it all felt that this is a place where history meets magic, and this is a place which is very good for stories to bloom.”

Are you finding inspiration in Prague during your stay here? You are here for two months and are just about in the middle of your stay.

“Here I am, working on a new project. It’s set in the Belle Époque in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We have characters coming from Lviv and from Poland and from Czechia, and obviously they will have a lot of travels. In Prague I found many places I wanted to add to my story, but I wanted not only to make it a story about location but also about geopolitics, because the Austro-Hungarian time is perceived differently here and in Ukraine. It’s very interesting to compare. Also, as a part of one empire under Austrian rule, we all have some consequences of this, some negative, some positive. For me this story will be like a big exploration, and it will be a way to reconnect with my European past. As for Prague, I spent a lot of time walking around because I’m very much inspired by details. When you write a story, and when it is urban fantasy, you want to add the details, you want to see the actual doors, you want to see the actual courtyards. This is what I learn more during my stay here. And obviously I have drunk a lot of coffee.”

Fantasy is a genre that is most associated with young people between about 15 and 25. Is that the reader that you have in mind?

Photo: Vivat

“Quite often people say that fantasy can’t be serious, or fantasy can’t approach serious topics and it can’t work with, for example, traumatising experience. I believe that part of my job is to prove them wrong, if they will read me, because fantasy is very complex and gives you a lot of instruments to work with trauma, and it gives you a lot of instruments to talk to a different audience. For example, I have some books aimed for a young audience, but my publisher analyses the sales and sees that more than half the audience are adults, and they are interested in discovering more. I also think that fantasy can give you a lot of opportunities to speak about painful experience but not to make it traumatising for the reader.”

In a month’s time you will be going back home to Lviv. You must feel very apprehensive about the future.

“Yes. I’m really enjoying my stay in Prague and I love the fact that here I can have a normal life. I will come back home and I will go on working, and I will try at least to do what I can do. It is very hard to explain how that feels, but when you are at home you feel more powerful. When I go abroad, I am even more worried about my friends and about people close to me. When I am at home, I feel more powerful because there is this fierce feeling that this is my home and I stand here. But I really hope that I will also have more international projects, so I can help people to discover Ukrainian literature and I can encourage them. I really love to do this.”

Thank you very much for talking to me here in the café of the Scouts’ Institute on Prague’s Old Town Square.

“Thank you, and all of you will be welcome to visit Lviv. I will give you a Belle Époque tour in the future.”