Strange coincidences bring together two literary traditions in today’s PEN Atlas piece by Oksana Zabuzhko, which explores Ukrainian and Eastern European authors, their debt to history and their unjustly hidden classics

In the European literary landscape one can hardly think of any two more distant – and historically different – literary traditions than the English and Ukrainian ones. Even when we consider, among other things, that in 1947 George Orwell himself funded the publication of the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm (which happened to be its first translation ever), the best parallel to describe how the two traditions are related would be the tale about the rich and poor brothers – only the rich brother in this tale has no clue of the existence of the poor one.

Not that I find such asymmetry unusual. The Yiddish-American author Jacob Glatstein once astutely explained the difference between major and minor literatures: “I have to read T.S. Eliot, but T.S. Eliot doesn’t have to read me”. The rule remains the same for those who belong, as I do, to the first generation of writers of a “minor literature” starting to make it, after a century-long interlude, onto the international stage. Appearing, in the view of Western readers, “out of nowhere”, with no visible “literary ancestors” to buttress us (the best works of our classics are yet to be translated!), or even with instantly identifiable cultural markers (save for Gogol, plus The Carol of the Bells,given that anyone cares to remember the composer’s name), we, the poor relatives of the European household, have but a meagre chance of being heard in the post-informational world – that is, unless our lame-born democracy alarms news agencies with more political turmoil. So, I wasn’t even a bit surprised to have read in Julian Barnes’ interview by the Ukrainian translator of The Sense of an Ending, that he could not name a single Ukrainian author, and had never read one in all his life.

All the more striking is the book’s emergence. For Julian Barnes has woven a magnificent story on the non-linearity of time: on the past that never passes, continuing to shape our lives without our awareness, and on our essential human incapacity to fix things inour memory. These are the subjects that have been on my mind for the entire past decade, and resulted, back in 2009, in a 700-page novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. When swallowing – thirstily, almost ecstatically – The Sense of an Ending, I was thus overtaken with something stronger than a Barthesian ‘jouissance du texte’. It’s the feeling of an explorer in a desert who suddenly sees somebody else’s tracks along her route, growing in numbers with each step forward: the same turns and devices employed, even the same name of the character who motors the plot – Adrian, and, yes, he commits suicide too (though in a different way, and for different reasons), and vanishes off the records with no chance for the living to ever learn “all of the truth”, and fathers a son he never sees, and the son grows up a cripple, too (though in a far more literal way than in The Museum)… More important, however, than all these freaky coincidences, was the sense of the route that I experienced while reading the book – the same route that drives explorers with the same Kantian question, “What can I know?”, and ends with the same answer, however hard for a European (Cartesian!) mind to digest: you’ll never know, nor understand, mortal; curb your pride…

I can dutifully submit all my Ukrainian rationale for my long-time obsession with the seemingly buried-for-good ‘secrets’ of the past that begin surfacing after decades, dramatically changing people’s self-awareness: in my novel I was busy with national memory first-hand. My story embraces three generations, some seventy years of Ukraine’s recent history (starting with Stalin’s man-made famine of 1933), during which the country was forced into silence, unable to speak for itself. It’s now time for my generation of writers to put together the scattered pieces of unrecorded memories, to dig skeletons out of closets, and to speak for the dead. The same, to varying extents, applies to all Eastern European literatures, and I can name dozens of novels following the trend – from the Finnish novel Purge by Sofi Oksanen, to the Croatian novel Srda Sings in the Twilight at Pentecost by Milenko Jergovic:  with our stories, we all struggle to make our mutilated post-war history livable. But in no way can I comprehend  how on earth Mr. Barnes managed to play out the same existential drama to the solo tune of an ordinary Bristol alumnus in whose culture everything is sealed and archived, and Alzheimer’s disease is a medical term, not a social diagnosis.  

Perhaps the novel, as a genre, is simply drifting back to myth-making – with the same structures and archetypes repeating themselves everywhere. But what if the two Adrians – two beautiful losers, English and Ukrainian – signal a more profound disease of our digitized age: “a great unrest”, coming from the fact that we no longer need to know what else in the past we’ve done wrong?

About the Author

Oksana Zabuzhko (b.1960) is Ukraine’s major contemporary writer, the author of nineteen books of different genres (poetry, fiction, essays, criticism).  In the early 1990s she lectured in the USA as a Fulbright Fellow and a Writer-in-Residence at Penn State University, Harvard University, and University of Pittsburgh.  Her novel Field Work in Ukrainian Sex (1996) was named “the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence”.  Her recent novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets (2009), won in Ukraine The Book of the Year, and was rated among The Best Books of the Year by Die Zeit Online, and Swiss Radio DRS.

Ms. Zabuzhko lives in Kyiv with her partner, artist Rostyslav Luzhetsky.


Additional Information

Oksana Zabuzhko will be appearing at the Dash Cafe, Rich Mix on Wednesday 5th June 7.30pm.

To read more of Oksana’s work, please see Words Without Borders.