Perhaps I Wasn’t Ready for Ukraine’s Complex History
When “in touch with the world” was announced as the theme for the 2023 Spring Read for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club, I was excited about the possibility of reading fiction that described life in Ukraine. Not only have I watched heartbreaking coverage of the war, followed refugees as they spread across the globe seeking safety and survival, but I felt there had to be lessons from a country whose history was so complex and tumultuous – a history of aggression and conflict that contrasted with my life in rural Kansas.
Ukraine, then. When one of our steering committee members recommended Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, I was thrilled, ready to jump right in. I loved the title. I was very excited about reading and learning. Then I received the book – the 714 page book. I’d read a review that said I’d either hate it or love it. Another review suggested Museum was a Ukrainian Tolstoy. The Ukrainian War and Peace. 714 pages.
So, I thought . . . I’ll try to love it. I started reading. Two things happened.
First, I was stunned by the quality of the language, the writing. As I read, I felt like my entire being was reading. While I was aware that I was reading Nina Shive-CHOOK Murray’s translation rather than the author’s original words, my attention was fully engaged, my vocabulary challenged. I’d heard that popular novels these days are written at a 7th-grade reading level, that the average adult reads at a 9th grade level. Not me! Reading this Ukrainian novelist’s work was extremely satisfying.
Sometimes reading a good book requires one to draw upon past experience and knowledge and in this case, as a reader, I felt completely unprepared. Intent on enjoying the act of reading, the beauty and flow of the words, I realized that my limited knowledge of Russian and Balkan history, my lack of experience with the changing boundaries, governments – vocabulary aside, I was simply unprepared to understand this lengthy tome covering three generations of Ukrainians whose history was obliterated by war, by Soviet occupation, by broken connections.
I should have started with a historical timeline, an historical atlas. I should have been committed enough to learning and understanding to prepare for the read. Truthfully, the quality of the writing made me somewhat ashamed to have assumed that I could have read this Ukrainian War and Peace with any level of understanding. I wasn’t so much “in touch with the world.”
So, I’m sorry to say – I didn’t make it. I felt inadequately informed about both history and geography, I felt – not so in touch with the world. That said, however, I did some reading about the author to seek a context for understanding the work.
Oksana Zabuzhko began as a poet whose parents were blacklisted during the Soviet purges which prevented her first book from being published until the 1980s. She earned a PhD in philosophy in Ukraine, has been a Fulbright Fellow as well as a writer in residence at Penn State, Harvard and the University of Pittsburg. Today, she remains in Ukraine writing about the war, informing the world.
In a March 2019 interview in Source, Zabuzhko described all Ukrainians as “survivors” living with a certain evolution of trauma suggesting that historians, psychologists and sociologists must investigate the generational impact of war, of repression.
I did begin to learn and perhaps in the future, I hope to learn enough to pick up The Museum of Abandoned Secrets again. Perhaps Zabuzhko chastised me for my naiveté when she said, “If you want to understand Ukraine, its spirit, its strengths and weaknesses, books or articles about events are not enough.”
It may not be enough, but it is a start. It is enough for now.
I’m Kathleen Holt from Cimarron, Kansas for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.
Eruomaidan Press: News and Views from Ukraine. Oksana Zabuzhko: Ukraine is at the forefront of a huge world battle that will transform humanity.
Ingvarsson, Steffen. An interview with Oksana Zabuzhko. PEN/Opp. Swedish Penn.
NV-The New Voice of Ukraine. Why the west missed Russian fascism, reveals author Oksana Zabuzhko. NV Interview.